Industry asks: Is #StopTheBeautyTest a sign of regression and hypocrisy?

Industry asks: Is #StopTheBeautyTest a sign of regression and hypocrisy?

The latest #StopTheBeautyTest for Dove receives flak and appreciation from the industry.

Aditi School Girl

Mumbai: As the writer of this story, I don’t know if the recent “#StopTheBeautyTest” campaign by Dove is just blown out of proportion or it isn't. Dove, HUL’s soap brand,  has been in India since the 1990s and one of HUL’s other products, Glow & Lovely (previously Fair & Glow) – a skin-lightening cream, has been around in the country since 1975. So, my question is, has the fair skin obsession been fiercely propagated in India by one of the largest FMCG giants, Hindustan Unilever (HUL), or “#StopTheBeautyTest”? Or is the existence of both the brands at varied timings in the country, just a point to be brushed aside? Time and again when this tug of war between beauty and calibre has occurred, it has only led me to ask more and deeper questions. This time, I spoke to industry veterans who have pondered on the points about the creative and strategy of this campaign which has been conceptualised and executed by Ogilvy.

He was the first person I called to review this campaign, simply because on my LinkedIn, apart from HUL CEO & managing director Sanjiv Mehta, he was the first person whose post dared to speak something which not many could lend an ear to. Bang In The Middle (BITM) co-founder and chief strategy officer, Naresh Gupta says, “I think it’s very dishonest on the part of HUL to do a campaign like this. That’s where the whole issue is. I understand that you have a brand to sell and nobody has the right to tell you to not sell the brand. But when they try to take this righteous approach – the whole righteousness is wrong, because, from the business perspective, this is not what they’re doing when they’re selling Axe and Glow & Lovely. They’re doing something different – they’re prying on all the insecurities a person has when they’re selling Glow & Lovely and Axe.”

He further continues to ask - who are these people who would move to buy Dove? “They are actually at one point of time buying Glow & Lovely or are on Axe. So, you made money off them at some stage of life, and now you are continuing to make money off them at another stage of life. The other problem is the way the whole campaign has been executed – it is not executed with a positive tone of voice, which is the deeper issue. My concern is that the campaign should have been executed with a much more positive tone of voice,” he explains.

Even though many root for HUL’s hypocrisy, on the other hand, FCB India executive creative director Sumitra Sengupta likes the brand’s (Dove’s) work in bits but still feels that it doesn’t strike that spark. “After speaking to the urban target group for so long, I think Dove decided to address the masses. Yes, it’s written beautifully, is fabulously shot, and imparts information emotionally, but doesn’t create magic.”

Some people recognise that Dove, over the years, has been a trailblazer, breaking beauty conventions and stereotypes and Dentsu Creative chief strategy officer Sumeer Mathur is one of them. This campaign is phase two of an earlier campaign that focused on how women are judged at the time of seeking a life partner. The communication seems to be taking the same position forward. “If anything, it’s more of the same and not entirely new or fresh,” he feels.

Business strategist and PepsiCo India, Motorola & HP Asia former marketing head Lloyd Mathias finds this campaign interesting and in line with Dove’s core proposition that beauty is not defined by shape, size or colour – it's authentic and all about self-esteem and confidence.

“Dove’s current campaign “#StopTheBeautyTest” tries to counter the prevalent stereotypes about beauty that are reinforced early on from darker skin tones to body shaming. It is a hard-hitting campaign bringing to the fore the trauma many young girls go through in India,” he adds.

Elucidating on the hype and buzz that this ad has created on social media Lloyd explained that the debate is a clear indication that the campaign strikes a chord, which is good for the brand that plays a niche in the soap market. Besides the activism, it inspires and drives consideration which is hugely positive for the brand.

Talk about being regressive!

Along with MediaMonks chief content officer, an ex-Ogilvy, an ex-MullenLowe Lintas Azazul Haque many others strongly believe that “#StopTheBeautyTest” is a very elite way of looking at Indian society. It feels like a conversation that happens in high society about how suppressed and regressive our society is. Brands like Dove should inspire women to celebrate real beauty instead of questioning society for suppressing a certain gender.

A lot of people watching this ad feel that for a brand like Dove which has always stood for true beauty, and has done some commendable work in the past, Azazul thinks that “#StopTheBeautyTest” lacks a deep-rooted insight.

Naresh firmly stands his ground when he says that the current Indian president Droupadi Murmu doesn’t fit the beauty bill, the way any brand would want to fit the beauty bill - but she has climbed to the top position in the country and you can’t get a more inspirational woman to look up to than her. “So if you look at it that way, society is moving somewhere else, and the brand is stuck somewhere else. This is just dated thinking and execution. And we, advertising people, live in our echo chamber, thinking this is what happens and this is what doesn’t happen,” he asserts.

Several also feel that the campaign puts Indian society in a poor light by portraying it as regressive even now, which, to be true, isn’t the fact. “To a certain extent, it is true that in Indian society few parents still believe that looking beautiful is a parameter of success. But this ad makes it look like most Indians are stuck in this conservative, parochial mindset. Also, it makes the women, the mother, the family- the villain,” says Azazul.

Sumeer understands that we seem to live in a world where it’s good to have an opinion and even better to be outraged. “It’s great if a certain section of society feels that we have moved on from judging girls on the beauty parameter and this no longer holds relevance for them. However, it would be interesting to know what the masses think about this ad - right now the criticism seems to come from the progressive English-speaking digital urban classes,” he explains.  

He has a different stance on this and goes on to add that he thinks many girls even in urban India would find this communication relevant, the fact that teenage girls face unfair scrutiny and feel overwhelming anxiety about their body and looks is a global phenomenon that is well documented by psychologists. Young men seem to be developing similar issues these days in many social pockets.

“Would husbands get the idea of beating their wives because they saw “Darlings”? Similarly, it would be regressive if it ended in ambiguity on what Dove believes in and that’s not the case, it’s not promoting beauty tests. Merely calling out a social evil does not mean you are propagating it. Could it have been executed with more positivity, would that have worked better at getting people to sit up and notice the issue? Usually, when a brand takes on social evil, its communication needs to hold a mirror to society. On a normal day most brand communication is sun-shiny,” he reveals.

Lloyd, too, doesn’t consider the campaign to be regressive at all, as it shows a mirror to deeply prevalent social mores, thus bringing them to the fore. “Highlighting social issues will always raise controversies and bring out polarising views but these are inescapable in these times where social media enables everyone to have a view and air it freely. Smart brands harness this to their advantage,” he explains.

Naresh has believed for a very long time that the advertising guys are out of touch with reality. The world has moved on and the progression has happened to a very large extent. But the advertising folk have gone back on their appeals – they haven't moved forward.

“15-16 years ago the advertising appeals were much more progressive. Agencies have been doing far more progressive work – ‘Daag Acche Hai’ (the tagline and brand campaign line for HUL’s detergent brand – Surf Excel) comes from the same company – that is so much progress. But when you do this “#StopTheBeautyTest,” it is not progression, it’s regression. And this is what has happened in advertising for the last 10 years – we have only gone back in time, we have not moved forward,” debates Naresh.

For business and brand strategist and Harish Bijoor Inc founder Harish Bijoor, the “#StopTheBeautyTest” campaign is unnecessary today. “It is so yesterday! I do believe society has moved on. Reminding it of what it did in the past is an unnecessary stoking of the issue and the pot,” he says.

Compared to the fabulously progressive work Dove has done with its other social experiments, Sumitra does find this ad to be regressive. She added, “It sets up the problem beautifully, but doesn’t provide a solution. And I think ‘Dove says... stop the beauty test’ sounds a trifle arrogant.”

HUL’s hypocrisy or just plain marketing?

With HUL Dove's “#StopTheBeautyTest” campaign on one end, and its Glow & Lovely and Axe products' advertising on the other, is this HUL's hypocrisy or just plain demands of the various products in their portfolio? Every single time, when ads for fairness creams are rolled out, and on the other hand much is spoken about calibre outshining outward beauty, one tends to think that how farce could all this conversation get. Well, ad people, Sumitra and Azazul feel that HUL is doing justice to all its brands.

“Various brands of HUL stand for various points of view. So one can stand for artificial, outer beauty while the other celebrates real beauty. I don't see a clash there,” clarifies Azazul.

Additionally, Sumeer points out, “If you see their actions, across its portfolio Unilever is moving towards more inclusivity, they have dropped ‘normal’ from some 200 beauty products, all these brands (Axe, Glow and Lovely) have moved on to a more progressive, modern worldview. I feel brands and people must be encouraged to evolve, pillorying attempts to evolve serves no purpose, it works against the agenda of change and inclusivity.”

Naresh, on the contrary, discussing the print execution of this campaign feels that through this campaign, Dove is giving a sense that teachers evaluate students, giving them marks on the way they look, which is blatant cheating. “They are being provocative, that’s the correct thing to do. But it can’t be a mark sheet because, in reality, there is no mark sheet. If a teacher says something like this to a student and if the student complains, the teacher gets sacked,” he says.

He goes on to add that if HUL has done the research, they should have put the research out in the public domain, mentioning clearly that this is what they have heard from their research and this is why the campaign is happening - that also they are not doing. He is of the thought that the brand is just trying to be clever.

Lloyd, speaking from a business and brand point of view, elaborates, “Multi-brand and multi-category businesses will always face the criticism of seeming hypocritical as they have different positionings for their various offerings.”

He strongly believes that in this case the criticism is justified as while Dove walks the higher ground of inner-beauty, there’s little doubt that HUL’s Glow & Lovely, panders to skin lightening. This is a fundamental contradiction.

On a concluding note, Sumeer discusses that there isn’t a monolith India - different people are on a different scale in terms of attitudes and concerns, and there is always a trend and a pushback against every topic on social media, as it allows everyone to express and share their opinion. It’s hard to gauge where the critical mass of opinion is.

“Keep your brand audience in mind, if it matters to them it matters to the brand, that’s a good north star to have,” he signs off.