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Advertising 'Real Women' Is a Step in the Right Direction

05/01/2014 01:21 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

A lot has been said lately about certain advertising campaigns that have revamped the way we sell to women. From Dove's popular Campaign for Real Beauty (recently spoofed brilliantly), to Aerie's decision to no longer use Photoshop on their models, to American Apparel's 'shock and awe' tactics showcasing mannequins with pubic hair, the approach (and the debate) rages on.

While cynics are crying marketing ploy, the massive attention these new campaigns are receiving from media and consumers point to an inevitable conclusion: it's possible to sell a product successfully and, at the same time, challenge widespread perceptions of female beauty. This new approach may, in fact, be a win-win for both brands and consumers alike.

According to a recent Forbes article, today's consumer is exposed to 5,000 ad messages a day (between 3 and 5 messages per minute). Campaigns that successfully partake in this information overload and come out on top are the ones that succeed in exiting the one-dimensional world of product marketing and enter the versatile and extremely viral world of mainstream media and social issues. The only way a campaign can do that is by being about something.

The reason Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty was such a runaway success is that it tapped into women's frustrations at constantly seeing unattainable beauty standards in advertising. Dove's campaign was revolutionary in that it featured full-figured, happy and content women socializing with others; in sharp contrast to the morose, perfectly airbrushed, always-hungry-looking supermodels angrily staring at us from the glossy pages of fashion magazines.

Dove's "Evolution" video was an effortless YouTube sensation with close to 18-million views because it exposed how Photoshop completely alters the way models look. By doing so, it solidly sided with every exasperated female consumer out there yelling back at the screen: "I knew it!"

Dove's campaign was the first to benefit from the frustration women feel at being peddled unrealistic images of beauty. The company was firmly perceived (and still is by many, despite the recent backlash) as being on women's sides and committed to changing negative body images.

The benefits were swift and lucrative, as Dove's sales figures increased by a whopping 700 percent! That's not merely increasing your customer base. That's machete-chopping your way into undiscovered territory.

The naysayers will be quick to point out that -- horror of horrors! -- Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company that also owns Slim-Fast (a well-known dietary supplement) and Axe Body Spray, a toiletries brand targeted at young men between the ages of 16 and 24 that has caused its own share of controversy with its cheeky, sexist commercials that imply that anyone spraying themselves with Axe will have beautiful women falling at their feet.

How can Dove's campaign possibly be sincere and genuine, media critics ask, when it's in such sharp contrast to campaigns for those other products? Simple! It's not. It would be foolish to claim that Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty doesn't have, at its very essence, self-serving commercial purposes. Advertising is in the business of selling products, and a smart advertising campaign will choose the best approach to do so. But the focus shouldn't necessarily be on questioning the moral integrity of a campaign that purports to care about women's psychological well-being, but on its outcome. As imperfect and compromised as the approach is, it's still a huge step in the right direction.

If companies are starting to buy into the notion that making women feel good about themselves can possibly be just as lucrative as making them feel bad about themselves, a new era in advertising could be dawning. The people moralizing about how the motives aren't really sincere are sort of missing the point.

If a company can successfully sell its products by presenting more positive images of women (even if the motives are less than admirable), why should that immediately be perceived as wrong simply because the end goal is sales? The end goal will always be sales, so why not encourage a new, less-damaging way to sell?

Whether we like it or not, advertising holds immense power in shaping societal perceptions of what is acceptable and/or desirable. But while it mirrors and presents a framework for what we as a society consider normal, it unfortunately still continues to churn out extremely stereotyped and one-dimensional images of women. That not only affects the way women are viewed, but ultimately how women view themselves.

According to The National Institute on Media and the Family, 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their appearance and body image. By the time they're 17, that number has skyrocketed to 78 percent. It's dangerous and damaging to constantly compare yourself to the airbrushed, impossibly perfect images and that's why advertising is an incredibly powerful medium that simply cannot be underestimated. It's also why Sheryl Sandberg is working with Getty Images to re-imagine how women are portrayed in stock photography. Superficial baby steps, you say? Perhaps, but every global conversation started as someone simply wondering why things couldn't be done better.

Whether its detractors admit it or not, Dove's campaign jumpstarted a conversation that has prompted more and more companies to take another look at how they market to women. The old, lazy "there's something wrong with you and we can fix it" approach just won't do any more for an increasingly media-savvy market. Consumers want to see companies socially engaged and being part of the solution; not contributing to the problem.

Cue in the next generation of socially conscious marketing.

The new ad campaign for Aerie, a lounge wear and lingerie brand owned by American Eagle Outfitters and targeted to young women, has pledged not to use retouching tools such as Photoshop in the company's advertising.

Its ads show beautiful women with a few extra pounds and rounder stomachs, smaller or bigger breasts, laugh lines and visible tattoos. All the "imperfections" that advertising seeks to eliminate are there for us to see. The tagline accompanying the ads is: "The Real You Is Sexy".

The change has set off a wave of positive press for the brand, and instigated tons of conversations on social media. Given the amount of goodwill Dove has earned over the years, these new changes are sure to earn Aerie plenty of free advertising bonus points, as well.

Betabrand, a San Francisco based e-tailer, recently launched a new campaign for their spring collection, and decided to have female PhD and doctoral candidates modeling the clothes. Through their social media ads, the company was able to recruit 18 female brainiacs, and presented a catalog that included a portrait of each PhD student along with their name, area of study, and the university they attend.

The usual criticism emerged as people perused the catalogue. Are the models ordinary enough? Are they diverse enough? Did Betabrand still end up picking and choosing the prettiest bookish beauties? Perhaps, but when's the last time you saw a clothing campaign that featured brilliant women who looked like they belonged in your world, and not from some made-up fictitious ad universe where none of us live? When's the last time an ad gave the floor to smarts and sexy? And had you ever heard of Betebrand before this campaign? No? Well, perhaps this was a successful campaign for everyone involved, after all...

Aerie and Betabrand, like Dove, are likely to continue to benefit from increased sales through their campaigns and the positive vibe they've created for their respective brands, and there's no reason why we should be holding that against them. They've all started a conversation that continues to reverberate and deserves to be heard. Even American Apparel's god-awful pubic hair mannequins-controversy started a fascinating public debate on the obsessive need for women to remove all traces of body hair that went far behind the confines of a company's desire to sell pretentious T-shirts.

Are these new marketing campaigns ultimately more profit driven than consciously compassionate? Most likely, but it's much easier to accept that the ends justify the means when the means aren't unapologetically complicit in victimizing women all over again.

By Toula Drimonis

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