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The Self-Esteem Movement: Why Marketers Want You to Love Yourself (and How They Sometimes Fail) Remember Dove's recent "Beauty of Diversity" ad? The message for those who would market self-esteem: Be very, very careful.

Edited by Dan Bova


Marketing has produced some profound changes in style and tone over the years, but one of the most influential and popular trends in the last decade has been the "body positive" advertising movement.

Related: How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits

Companies like Dove and Lane Bryant have been prominent players in this movement, which predominantly targets women, encouraging these customers to embrace their looks instead of criticizing themselves. And when this method works, it gives viewers a sense of confidence, which they can then associate with the brand, creating a strong emotional brand connection. Think about Lane Bryant's #ImNoAngel campaign, which ended up earning the company $7 million in incremental sales after months of drought.

Or consider the popular Dove "Beauty Sketches" campaign, where participants were asked to describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist and then describe other women in their participant group. The short film demonstrated the profound disconnect that exists in women's perceptions of themselves and was such a success it became the most watched Youtube video of all time, which increased Dove's visibility abroad and domestically. At the time this article was written, it had 67.8 million views.

Self-Aware Representation

A customer is more likely to remember a product or advertisement that makes her (or him) feel good, because emotions significantly affect memory formation. With a self-esteem-based ad, due to its emotional impact, customers are more likely to perceive its message and the product attached to it as genuine, because it echoes what those customers are already thinking.

The Dove "Real Beauty" campaign was launched because a study showed that only 2 percent of women participants considered themselves "beautiful," demonstrating a persistent and present need in the customer base.

So, instead of inventing a slick marketing campaign, Dove simply supplied what customers already wanted; a more personable image that supported women and the body issues they struggled with the most.

Lane Bryant's "No Angel" campaign changed the message from "how women can become beautiful" to "these women are already beautiful."

A large part of the success of these campaigns is based in promoting feelings of self-respect and personal strength. This approach enables customers to seek out products that help to solve their problems through acceptance and a change in perspective.

Related: Market to Empowered Women: It's Ethical -- And It's Good for Business

An increase in confidence means an increase in sales.

Self-esteem and body positive marketing campaigns may have their own moral implications of changing body politics, but that doesn't change the fact that businesses exist to make a profit. In the 10 years since Dove introduced its "Real Beauty" campaign in 2004, sales increased from 2.5 billion to 4 billion.

That considerable increase was also compounded with Dove winning a number of prestigious advertising awards for its "Real Beauty" advertisements, further adding to the company's and the campaign's credibility.

The message for beauty companies: Instead of bombarding viewers with "ideal" (i.e., model) body types, which affect women negatively, the use of realistic but positive images and accepting language helps build customer trust, which translates into increased revenue.

Dove's infamous missteps

Dove, more recently, has continued to make attempts to represent the "beauty of diversity," but its ads haven't always hit the mark. Some years ago, it raised an outcry with its "Choose Beautiful" campaign where women were asked to choose between one door marked "Beautiful" and another marked "Average." Critics called the ad manipulative and patronizing. In 2014, Unilever pulled a planned Dove billboard showing a woman displaying her underarm area and jokingly calling New Jersey "the armpit of America," telling the state to take that as a compliment (New Jersey wasn't amused.)

There's more: Earlier this month -- October 2017 -- the company posted a three-second video clip on its Facebook page to promote Dove Body Wash. The clip showed a black woman in a brown shirt, removing the shirt and, via special effects, morphing into a white woman in a lighter shirt.

What was the message? Hard to say, though Dove insisted that the ad was well intentioned and meant to align with its commitment to (the ad's name) "The Beauty of Diversity."

For many viewers, however, the impression communicated was: "Under every beautiful black woman's skin lives a beautiful white woman." Not surprisingly, severe negative backlash and criticisms of racial insensitivity followed. Dove immediately pulled the ad and started sending out apologies.

The backlash didn't immediately let up. One woman posted, "This is gross. You think people of color can just wash away their melanin and become white? What were you going for, exactly?" And, from another: "Your creative director should be fired."

In the end, the ad proved to be an excellent example of how an attempt at improving self-esteem, self-love, and diversity can go awry -- if you aren't sincere enough, or don't understand the feelings and perceptions of your target audience (focus groups, anyone?)

The message for beauty companies: Dove clearly fell out of touch with its customers when it produced this ad. Is PR team is still trying to recover.


An intoxicating combination of emotional appeal and problem-solving has led to great success for the companies that use these self-esteem marketing techniques -- so long as they use them with caution.

If executed tastefully, such campaigns have proven to be a boon for branding and sales by fulfilling a present need in a customer base. In addition, they can function as a facilitator for positive change in cultural and societal stereotypes.

Related: 3 Lessons From Pepsi's Controversial Kendall Jenner Protest Ad

The message for beauty companies: The advertising industry, and our society as a whole, are both better off with self-esteem campaigns, because we're all happier when we feel stronger and more confident about ourselves. Just be very, very careful when you embark on such a campaign.

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