Does Dove's promotion of positive self-images among women demonstrate cynical marketing or integrity? Robert Gray reports

Unilever-owned toiletries brand Dove has carved a strong image for itself through its down-to-earth Campaign for Real Beauty. Award-winning advertising portraying everyday women with ample curves rather than anorexic supermodels airbrushed into a distortion of feminine perfection has struck a chord with consumers weary
of slick clichés.

The latest phase of the campaign, launched with TV advertising on April 3, aims to raise awareness of the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, set up to help educate girls and young women to feel better about their bodies, whether it's hair colour, weight or freckles they're unhappy with.

What is in essence a cause-related marketing campaign was developed using insights from consumer research. The findings suggested that: 92% of 15 to 17-year-old British girls want to change something about the way they look; 73% of the same group say periods of low self-esteem are directly related to negative feelings about their appearance and 30% of 8 to 12-year-old British girls want to be slimmer.

Unilever argues that while its aim is clearly to sell more products, it can do this by acting as an agent for change and helping young girls and women feel more confident about their bodies. It points to commitment to the Dove Self-Esteem Fund and its specific work on eating disorders as evidence that its actions amount to more than PR.

"I think every brand has a moral and social responsibility because good brands have an impact on people," says Kirsten Clayton, business director, Dove master brand at ad agency Ogilvy. "Dove would welcome it if other brands took a similar stand. It would be good to live in a world where stereotypes didn't exist, but beauty advertising is unfortunately filled with stereotypes."

Leading lights in the advertising community say Dove has done an exemplary job of differentiating itself in the marketplace. "The idea of taking a real-world look at the market is admirable," says Neil Hourston, head of planning at TBWA, whose clients include packaged food brands Müller and McCain. However, a tell-it-like-it-is approach can be risky. Back in 2000 a Marks & Spencer campaign featured size-16 model Amy Davis standing naked on a hilltop shouting "I'm normal!" Amy's physique may have been typical, but consumers didn't like the ad and sales declined.

Tellingly, M&S's recent recovery has involved advertising featuring iconically skinny and glamorous Twiggy.

Grant Duncan, CEO of ad agency Publicis, thinks that the Dove ad has succeeded while others have failed because it is true to the essence of the brand and is imbued with the sort of charm and self-deprecation that made British movie Calendar Girls a hit.

However, he warns that the brand should take care in tackling the minefield of teenage self-esteem. "This is moving into a deeper psychological territory. Is it appropriate in a commercial context?"

This is not just an issue for the beauty aisle. As the obesity debate rages on, food brands and retailers are becoming increasingly aware of consumer health concerns. But they need to take care if they decide to address them in advertising campaigns.

Euro RSCG executive planning director Richard Kelly says that it is important for food brands to avoid getting sucked into the "hideous area" of eating disorders.

Health claims come under close scrutiny. While Sainsbury has benefited from its association with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the Advertising Standards Authority is currently investigating complaints about crisp brand Walkers' claims that its reformulated products are 'better for you'.

Consumers want closer relationships with brands and expect more of them in terms of social integrity and trustworthiness. But they remain suckers for glamour. The Dove campaign deftly balances beauty with honesty. It's a trick other brands would like to carry off, but is by no means an easy proposition.