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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Comparative disadvantage: Dove spot leads the way in a sordid return to side-by-side demos

I recently spoke to the women of SheSays, a group devoted to getting more female creatives into digital agencies, and showed them some of the more laughable examples of TV commercials from the 1950s and early '60s, the high time for Mad Men and their equally insane, cleaning-obsessed wives.

An endless spot for Final Touch fabric softener drew lots of laughs. In black and white, it opens on a perfect suburban patio, with two men in whites going off to play tennis while the missuses, both in heels and shirtwaist dresses, stay behind. "You know what's bothering me?" the brunette says to the blonde. "I can't get Tom's tennis shorts as white as Fred's!"

Stricken by the news, Mrs. Fred kindly takes her friend inside to divulge her secret. We see a demonstration, described in the spot as "actual scientific ultraviolet light tests," of two towels side by side--one washed in Final Touch and the other in "another leading softener." A man's hand throws a switch, and guess what? The light demonstration shows that the Final Touch towel is whiter! It positively glows from within, like a woman who knows how to keep her husband's shorts clean. "I'll get some!" Mrs. Dirty-No-More vows.

Lobotomy sold separately.

Now, it's easy to snort at such antiquated, sexist work. But the truth is, attack ads with similar "scientific" side-by-side demos are on the rise, coming back to haunt the ad business like a bad flu. The saddest case comes from Unilever's Dove, a supposed bastion of enlightenment for women. It's excruciating to see a brand like this undermine its exquisitely nurtured image equity for a low-cost spot involving countess repetitions of the word "scum."


I kept hoping it would turn out to be a parody. With "scum" covered, the only word missing is "bag," and the demo would actually look better if these lovely young women in towels put bags over their heads to cover their shame.

The TV version has been out for a while, but a new Web version was just posted. (See it at "Is your bar of soap leaving scum on your skin?" the announcer asks. "We asked one woman to wash with soap, another with Dove. If you could see the difference, you'd see that soap actually leaves an invisible layer of scum on your skin." They actually had to write "artistic dramatization" over the crud pictured on the non-Dove woman.


I know times are tough, but the cognitive dissonance of seeing Dove, in a matter of months, go from the "Campaign for Real Beauty," which blasted stereotypes and built female self-esteem, to making women anxious about scum on their skin is, well, like seeing Sonia Sotomayor suddenly choosing to surgically remove her tongue. Never mind the fear-mongering. How sexist is it to divide the women of the world into "clean" and "scummy"? Isn't this exactly like separating them into whores and Madonnas? Maybe the coed on the left should wear a big "S" on her chest amid the Picasso-esque outbreak of lesions.

In retreating from female enlightenment to the dark ages of fake science, Dove offers the most dramatic example of attack ads gone wrong, but certainly not the only one. Comparative ads make hard times even more depressing. The most vicious ones, of course, are used by political consultants as a scorched-earth tactic to depress voter turnout. But even the milder ones--for products, not politicians--can inadvertently offer free promotion to the competition.

I remember the spot with the two blankets--one with the Advil PM logo, the other with Tylenol PM. But I can't for the life of me recall which of the people under them got the better night's sleep. (Turns out it was an Advil spot.) Of course, scrappy challenger brands who love to play Avis to category leader Hertz (I'd put Burger King in this category) succeed by being deft and funny. (Obviously, Apple's "Mac vs. PC" campaign does this brilliantly.)

Dove rival Nivea also has a spot that uses a side-by-side comparison, this time squirting its own and a competitor's body wash into measuring cups. I have no idea what it proves.

This stuff is so old and tired that it would seem to predate anyone working these days. Is there some sort of collective unconscious involving ads from the '50s to which clients revert, to make it look like they're doing "real" advertising?

Say the "Campaign for Real Beauty" was a noble failure that got tons of press but didn't sell. OK, time to move on. Why not try something fresh and breakthrough that's positive and motivating? On the Web site, the brand attempts to connect with its more recent past by having a "scientist, mother and Dove user" explain the science behind the scum. (The scummier soap leaves a mirror slightly more streaked.) There's no word on whether she advises her friends on whiter whites, though.


Read how Unilever overhauled its global detergent marketing at

By Barbara Lippert

Source Citation:Lippert, Barbara. "Comparative disadvantage: Dove spot leads the way in a sordid return to side-by-side demos.(THE CRITIC)(Column)." ADWEEK 50.24 (June 15, 2009): AM23(1). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 9 Aug. 2009

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