Dove forgot that pity doesn’t sell

Following “Beauty Sketches” was a tough job. Dove fumbled it

Following “Beauty Sketches” was a tough job. Dove fumbled it

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award

About a thousand years ago, a television commercial for P&G’s Olay brand emerged out of Australia that worked so well it would end up being run—accents and all—in much of the Olay world. Internally, it was called “Top Gun,” for the broad reference it made to the sexual tension between Maverick and his female flight instructor in the film. In the Olay spot, a swaggering young military pilot hits on his female instructor, only to discover to his astonishment that she is a former teacher of his, and so, we are to surmise, quite a bit older than she looks. Snap.

The spot sold boatloads of Olay, and continued to do so long after P&G’s othodoxy said it should have worn out. Meanwhile, its agencies’ best minds tried to figure out how to make another one just like it. In the effort to deconstruct the magic of “Top Gun,” there were some regrettable attempts to further plunder Tom Cruise’s opus, and others involving women getting into some kind of pickle because they looked younger than they were. Nothing worked. Sometimes spectacularly. It didn’t occur to anybody that this was because these spots made the women in them look like helpless naifs. “Top Gun,” alone, possessed one important quality: the female character was powerful, and empowered further by the product. All those black turtlenecked creative directors were chasing a formula, when what really made the campaign tick was a truth.

This reminiscence is brought to you by Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, specifically its latest iteration, “Beauty Patch,” launched last week. Built on the success of its “Real Beauty Sketches” viral hit, “Beauty Patch” also aims to convince women they’re more beautiful than they believe. This continues to be a noble pursuit, and I love Dove for it. But “Beauty Patch” chases the moment of epiphany so single-mindedly that it forgets to be sensitive about how it’s accomplished. Rather than let women see themselves through the eyes of others, as “Sketches” did, it cons them with a fake medicated patch that’s supposed to make them feel more beautiful. The epiphanic moment arrives as they are instead made to feel like idiots for believing in the patch in the first place.

Following up “Sketches” had to be one of the toughest briefs in the business. It was the eighth most-viewed viral video of all time, and gave Dove the kind of awareness leverage content marketers fantasize about. But in trying to advance the brand’s story from there, Dove lost the plot. It won’t be fatal as long as they get the next one right. As long as they remember that when the screen fades to black, we want to be happy for these women, not pity them.

This story originally appeared in Canadian Business.

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