How Unilever is Translating the Dove Real Beauty Campaign for China

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If I only have an A-cup breast, will you still love me? So asks a new Dove campaign in China.

On the heels of its success with the “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” campaign in the west, Dove is taking its self-esteem message to women in the world’s most populous nation.

Interestingly, the campaign takes on a whole different set of baggage in China, where a gender imbalance and the stigma over “leftover women” make for a tricky environment for marketers—one where messaging runs the risk of exploitation, or even worse, being ignored in the din.[more]

In a series of ads, pregnant bellies are painted with questions from unborn girls. “If you knew I would grow to be a flat-nosed girl, will you still welcome me?” asks one. “If you knew I’d grow up to weigh 140 jin [154 lbs], would I still be your baby?” asks another. The third: “I’ll soon some to the world, but if I grow to only have an A bra cup, will you tease me?”

The messages center on (rather universal) fears particular to China’s popular measures of female beauty, such as small noses, thinness and breast size. Accompanying the “belly art” is a behind-the-scenes video with message variations centered on the 140-jin and A-cup women not being scared 20 years in their futures. It also mirrors the current Dove US campaign which ponders why and when girls stop feeling naturally beautiful and become camera-shy.

“I’m not sure what to make of the images,” commented Mara Hvistendahl of the Dove China campaign. She’s the Shanghai-based contributing editor and writer for Science magazine whose book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for exploring China’s gender imbalance and the nation’s historic preference for male children.

Overall, Hvistendahl told brandchannel that she finds the ads “encouraging” and promising. “On the other hand,” she said, “the campaign is about how girls are treated after they’re born. But the problem in China now is that girls aren’t being born in the first place.” Hvistendahl added, “I’d like to see something more focused on parents. We need images that ask questions like: do you want to be the sort of parent who puts demands on your child from well before birth?”

The bottom line, she concluded: “Countries like China need more sophisticated messaging on this issue.”

A case study from Ogilvy and Mather Shanghai, the agency behind the campaign, identifies a number of goals of the campaign, including “Spark a national dialogue.” To this end, Ogilvy claims 83 million impressions and tens of thousands of engaged social media users.

Unfortunately, if anything, China’s messaging on the issue may be becoming less sophisticated, presenting Dove’s “Born Beautiful” (“生来美丽”) campaign with an uphill slog. As mainland women’s disposable income increases, the business of chasing beauty there is growing. Analysts at Euromonitor International project that China’s beauty and cosmetics market, now the world’s third largest, will be worth a whopping $34 billion by 2015.

Compounding existing popular expectations about “beauty” are a slew of both traditional and modern pressures facing Chinese women. For example, one sexist reality faced by female consumers in modern China is the threat of being classified a “leftover woman” (剩女), or a “spinster” who’s unmarried (and thus devalued and stale, to the narrow-minded) after the age of 26. This even as the nation is predicted to have 30 million men without wives by the end of the decade.

Unilever-owned Dove’s focus, which is not just on cosmetic users but on the parents who play a huge role in young women’s sense of self-esteem and beauty, is not misplaced. “Parents want their daughters to be beautiful so they’ll have an easier time finding a job or a husband,” a Beijing plastic surgeon told Reuters in 2011 for a story about China’s growing plastic surgery industry. Today, China is third worldwide for the per capita number of cosmetic procedures performed, a rate predicted to grow even in nontraditional surgery such as “designer vaginas.”

Nearby South Korea—already by some counts the world leader in per capita plastic surgery—is now a favorite Chinese cosmetic surgery tourism destination. During one recent national holiday, a cosmetic surgery center in Seoul’s tony Gangnam neighborhood reported that it was so booked with Chinese clients that they told the China Daily they “don’t have time to accept appointments from local people.”

Meanwhile, Dove’s complicated message is facing off against brands pushing in the exact opposite direction. A new smartphone app called Meiren Xiangji (美人相机) or “The Beauty Camera,” which uses a filter to manipulate self-portraits to enlarge eyes, plump lips and shave down chins to create, in the words of Jing Daily, “doll-like, luminous, porcelain masterpieces.”

Teaming up with Meiren Xiangji to create branded filters for the “after” app photos are France’s Guerlain and Nivea. The former used branded filters to create a campaign marketing its Météorites whitening product, the latter partnered with the app for a “camera upgrade” sponsored by its “Aqua Sensation” product.

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