Shreyas Kulkarni

Dove soap calls out pre-marriage scrutiny of bride's weight, height, colour, hair; takes 'Real Beauty' stance ahead

After weeks of discussions around pH levels and litmus tests, HUL's Dove refocuses the category's attention on the meaning of beauty in its #StopTheBeautyTest campaign.

That Dove, a Hindustan Unilever (HUL) soap brand, is one of the most popular and fierce torchbearers of women’s beauty, no real beauty, is well-documented.

There was its much appreciated ‘Dove Campaign for Real Beauty’ in 2004. Advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather (now Ogilvy) put up billboards in Germany and the United Kingdom featuring photographs of real women, instead of professional models… The campaign went on to become a big hit and expanded to several mediums like ads, events, workshops and so on.

Then, there was the ‘Dove Real Beauty Sketches’ in 2013, where “each woman is the subject of two portraits drawn by FBI-trained forensic artist Gil Zamora: one based on her own description, and the other using a stranger’s observations. The results are surprising…”

In 2014, Dove asked “real women what beauty means to them” for its #Beautyis campaign, and followed it up with the ‘What Beauty Means to You?’ campaign in 2016 where it asked diverse women this question.

Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy
Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy

All these campaigns won hearts and approvals globally. “These campaigns spoke to us as an individual in our own right. They were asking us (women) to redefine beauty. I became the protagonist of my story, whether I am dark, short, chubby, short..,” says brand and consumer expert Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy (former Rediffusion Y&R, UTV Media, Zee, JWT; has worked on HUL campaigns during her JWT days).

Also Read: Lux spot starring Kareena Kapoor Khan takes a woke stance, tries to bust pregnancy stereotypes and redefine the 'glow'

For the past month, HUL has been battling a campaign war against Sebamed over a soap's pH levels. It was only two weeks ago that Dove's sibling soap brand Lux came out of this battle and released an ad featuring Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan that tried to redefine the pregnancy glow.

On February 24, 2021 (Wednesday), Dove India released an ad in 10 languages called #StopTheBeautyTest. It featured the real-life stories of five women: Mahak, Noor, Rajeshwari, Hemali and Deeksha. All of them faced the harsh examiner called society at the exam one can call an “arranged marriage meeting”.

And, they failed because they were overweight, dark-skinned, short, curly-haired, or had a spot in their face. Dove wants us to overcome such prejudices. The voice-over at the end of the ad says, “Khaamiyaan nahin, khoobiyaan dekhiye.” (Look at the beauty, not the flaws.)

Priya Nair, Executive Director, HUL & VP – Beauty and Personal Care South Asia: “In a country of 631 million women, it is unfortunate that there is such intense pressure to adhere to one definition of beauty. As owners of some of the largest beauty brands in the country, the onus to make beauty more positive and more inclusive is on us. Dove has always believed that beauty should be source of confidence, not anxiety. With #StopTheBeautyTest, we want to go one step forward in that direction.”

Zenobia Pithawalla - Senior Executive Creative Director; Mihir Chanchani - Executive Creative Director, Ogilvy India: “In India when it comes to a woman and her beauty, she is at her most vulnerable when she is of marriageable age. 90 per cent of single women in India feel they are rejected for marriage because of their looks. We decided to intervene at this point, where the woman needs us most. For a young woman the journey of finding a life partner doesn't have to turn into an ugly beauty test." 

"Thus, we came up with Dove’s #StopTheBeautyTest campaign. Staying true to the spirit of brand Dove, we worked with real women who were actually rejected on the basis of their looks. But were brave enough to feature in our campaign as they wanted to do their bit to stop this beauty test.”

"I think Dove is reattempting real beauty through this campaign, but pitching it in a much more culturally relevant context (marriage)," says Nisha Sampath, a brand marketing consultant with 20-plus years of experience (she has worked on HUL campaigns during her JWT days in 2004-05).

Nisha Sampath
Nisha Sampath

She went on to remark that Dove hasn’t leveraged real beauty as well in India as it has done abroad. It’s a very powerful purpose, but it faces a unique challenge in India because some beliefs and attitudes are deep-rooted in our culture. They just don’t go away.

When asked if the spot was pushing marriage as the end goal, while battling against societal standards of beauty, Sampath says, “I think more than pushing marriage, it (the Dove ad) is using it as a context of how a woman’s beauty gets evaluated and dissected as per social norms... It has chosen the moment for its relevance and not because marriage is the end goal. I would say it’s a courageous thing and well done.”

However, she is unclear on who the brand’s target audience (TG) is. “The original real beauty was about changing the way I think about myself. This one holds a mirror up to the society, but I am not sure who their TG is and what action needs to be taken.”

Why is such a lovely brand, which did fabulous work like ‘Real Beauty’, suggesting that everything in a woman’s life leads towards marriage, and that’s the final test? “Isn’t that a not-so-progressive premise…,” asks Ayyappan Raj, founder, The Script Room.

Ayyappan Raj
Ayyappan Raj

He feels that Dove is pitching itself away from its current brand/user profile. Also, Raj never imagined that mocking aunties and full-on match-making would be part of the Dove world. “Why is marriage the defining moment? Also, I strongly feel that it has to be from the woman’s point of view and not the brand’s.”

“Overall, I think purpose advertising is super tricky… miss one step in the premise or tone-of-voice, and it’s a damn steep fall. Tata Tea does it well. Lifebuoy does it well. Dove itself has done it well in the past. But somehow, I personally feel, this particular one didn’t,” remarks Raj.

The print ads

Dove soap calls out pre-marriage scrutiny of bride's weight, height, colour, hair; takes 'Real Beauty' stance ahead
Dove soap calls out pre-marriage scrutiny of bride's weight, height, colour, hair; takes 'Real Beauty' stance ahead
Dove soap calls out pre-marriage scrutiny of bride's weight, height, colour, hair; takes 'Real Beauty' stance ahead

Along with the digital ad, Dove India also released a full-page ad in the Times of India (Tuesday, February 23) and print ads detailing the judgement the women featured in the ad faced.

Swamy isn’t impressed with them, especially the writing. “Which age are we talking about? Why are they putting it like this? They’re trying to make the girl feel good. Do you think she’s going to feel good after reading the ad?”

“I respected it as a woman for its highly sensitive and perceptive insights on women leading to extremely nuanced communication in the past. This is what touched all women’s heart, regardless of age and ethnicity,” adds Swamy.

Referring to Dove’s earlier campaigns, she says that you could relate to them, whether you’re a 14-year-old girl or a 55-year-old woman. “In this campaign, however, `she’ sadly becomes an object. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter what she thinks of herself, it’s all about other people’s opinions, right or wrong. That, according to me, is a real tragic comedown.”

“From being one that spoke to my mind, heart and respected me, to suddenly treating me as an object and being extremely condescending in its tone, manner and message.”

Ajeeta Bharadwaj
Ajeeta Bharadwaj

Ajeeta Bharadwaj, chief strategy officer, Wondrlab India (she's worked at Wunderman Thompson and Leo Burnett), sums it up when she tells us that the campaign has its heart in the right place. The practice of judgements passed on brides and their families in the run-up to a marriage deserves to be challenged.

But appealing to the better side of people who are passing the judgement “by telling them don’t look at her flaws, look at her good points… is not going to the root of the problem.”

A far better resolution would have been to “empower the girls themselves, by directing the same message to them - see your own beauty and not your flaws.” This could inspire them in not just the limited context of marriage, but also other walks of their life.