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Why ladies didn’t love Dove’s latest gender-empowering ad stunt

After years of encouraging women to love their bodies, Dove set out to give its plastic bottles a makeover. The idea: “Just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too,” the company said on its website.

After just hours of its new advertising campaign, it seems indignation comes in all shapes and sizes, too.

The six shapely bottles — which include curvy, slender and pear-shaped varieties — have attracted ridicule.

“Dove ruined its body image,” the Atlantic declared.” “Dove is running out of ideas,”added the women’s site Jezebel.

Consumers were quick to weigh in on social media, too: “Like, I just want to [use] my body wash, not be reminded that I’m pear shaped,” a woman named Julie Daniel tweeted. “Women don’t need to be categorized all the time.”

So exactly where did Dove — a longtime darling of the advertising world — go wrong?

For starters, advertising professors say, the revamped bottles seem more tongue-in-cheek than they do a sincere way of celebrating women’s bodies. And, they said, there is a difference between feeling comfortable in your body and being unnecessarily prodded to make buying decisions based on your body’s contours.

“It’s straight-up off-brand,” said Samantha Skey, president of digital media company She Knows Media. “It’s a change in tone for Dove, from ads that are almost painfully sincere and earnest, to something that could literally be a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. Unless you’re trying to mock everything you stand for, I’m not sure why you would do this.”

Dove and its parent company, Unilever, did not respond to requests for comment.

The 46-second ad begins with a simple tagline: “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.” The camera pans to a factory where machines are churning out a number of bottles. “It’s time now to bring out the pretty people,” a man’s voice says, “and I D-double-dare you to find the prettier of the ladies here.” Upbeat music plays as each of the bottles makes its way down an assembly line. “Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” the ads says again.

Executives at Ogilvy & Mather London, the advertising firm behind the campaign, called it “one of those rare ideas which condenses decades of a brand’s legacy in two seconds.”

“It’s deceivingly simple and quite nuanced,” Andre Laurentino, an executive creative director for Ogilvy, said in a statement. “A message about our body conveyed by Dove bottles themselves, it brings brand essence and product design seamlessly together.”

But not everybody seemed to agree.

“Seems like a really stupid idea to remind people how their body shape doesn’t fit a culturally ideal body shape,” Patrick Vargas, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois, wrote in an email. “In the shower, no less! Who would want a consumer product that’s shaped like [them]self?”

Consumer surveys show that shoppers choose soaps and body washes based number of factors, including scent, quality and affordability. And while packaging certainly plays a role in how a product is perceived, many said Dove’s campaign seemed to miss the point.

“When you’re shopping, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, wow,  I’m going to buy this one because it has a pear shape just like me,’ ” said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies consumer psychology. “It doesn’t seem like this was a woman’s idea.”

“Are we selling high-level ideas here, or are we selling a product that’s supposed to clean your skin?,” she added. “Dove has drifted from its roots and has potentially gone too far.”

For more than a decade, Dove’s ‘real beauty’ campaign has been hailed as an example of socially-conscious advertising. Back in 2004, after market research found that only 4 percent of women thought of themselves as “beautiful,” Dove began filling its billboards and television ads with “real” women  of all colors, shapes and sizes. A number of ads and online video followed, including a 2013 spot in which forensic artists drew women based on their own descriptions of themselves, and again based on a stranger’s descriptions. The message: “You are more beautiful than you think.”

“Dove has done great things, and it’s really changed advertising,” Skey said. “They took a massive risk to fully pivot their brand toward a social message, and they understood and brought to life the impact of advertising on women’s and girls’ self-esteem.”

That, she added, is why this blunder is particularly interesting. Another brand — one with a more playful image, perhaps — could have pulled off the body-shaped bottles, she said.

“If this were a different brand that hadn’t done such beautiful, consistent work, nobody would’ve cared,” she said. “But for Dove to equate plastic bottles to a woman’s body — how that could be perceived as good idea, I don’t know.”

Instead, Dove is left doing damage control. But, Skey and others said, this slip-up isn’t likely to cause much long-term damage to the brand.

“Dove has enough loyalty among its customers that this is just a blip,” said Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University.

As Skey put it: “This kind of brand fail, they happen to everybody. You can only have a winning strategy for so long before you push it too far.”

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