Issue: Dove Accused of Retouching ‘Real Beauty’ Ads
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
In Accidental Branding I write that brands need to ‘sweat the details’ – meaning that paying attention to even small, innocuous details of the business that might not obviously affect the brand pays important dividends. A brewing scandal this week at Unilever with the Dove brand illustrates this. Dove has gotten into a mess because a profile of a professional photo retoucher in The New Yorker mentioned that he had worked on the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign – in which Dove explicitly argues against retouching reality. The details are complex, but Dove appears to have neglected to instruct a freelance photographer on the second iteration of the campaign in 2007 – the revered Annie Liebovitz – to avoid making any digital corrections to her photos.
The Dove Campaign for real beauty includes the following:
The campaign has been acclaimed for bringing body image issues to the fore. It has been criticized because Dove still sells products intended to beautify and because Unilever sells products like Axe that use the exact techniques that the Dove campaign criticizes.
Here are the facts in the unwinding mess:
Writing for the May 12th issue of The New Yorker, Lauren Collins profiled digital photo retouch artist Pascal Dangin. In her profile, Lauren writes:
To avoid such complaints, retouchers tend to practice semi-clandestinely. â€œIt is known that everybody does it, but they protest,â€ Dangin said recently. â€œThe people who complain about retouching are the first to say, â€˜Get this thing off my arm.â€™ â€ I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual â€œreal womenâ€ in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. â€œDo you know how much retouching was on that?â€ he asked. â€œBut it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyoneâ€™s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.â€
Unilever responded quickly, denying the accusations. Unilever’s PR department issued the following statement from the photo retoucher Pascal Dangin who was profiled in the article:
The recent article published by The New Yorker incorrectly implies that I retouched the images in connection with the  Dove ‘real women’ ad. I only worked on the [2007 Dove Pro-Age] campaign taken by Annie Leibovitz and was directed only to remove dust and do color correction — both the integrity of the photographs and the women’s natural beauty were maintained.
Unilever also released the following statement from Annie Liebovitz:
Let’s be perfectly clear — Pascal does all kinds of work — but he is primarily a printer — and only does retouching when asked to. The idea for Dove was very clear at the beginning. There was to be NO retouching, and there was not.
The New Yorker responded by standing by its story – only noting that the word “undergarments” was misplaced – meaning that they agreed Dangin might not have worked on the first campaign.
From this muddle, it is not clear whether Dangin made substantial alterations to the Liebowitz photographs. What is clear however, is that he did touch them and at a minimum made the “color corrections” that he claims in the statement delivered through Unilever. So it seems clear that Unilever and the Dove brand did not explicitly ensure that the Liebovitz photos were completely unaltered. It seems possible that the photos met the standard set for the brand – not altering the appearance of the women – but any retouching of the photos leaves the whiff of impropriety. For the brand, this is a disaster which could have been avoided with more attention to detail.
Branding Bottom Line:
Dove gets mascara all over the brand