The notion that using a real woman in an ad campaign is in itself some kind of revolutionary act is an idea that, inexplicably, has stood the test of time. It is well over a decade since Dove launched its "Campaign for real beauty", yet it remains the marketing moment most associated with body positivity. Is this merely a sign that the campaign was ahead of its time? Or is it testament to the enduring disparity between the airbrushed perfection of marketing imagery and the messy, but nonetheless beautiful, reality of life?
Historically, marketing has been based on a somewhat one-dimensional view of the world. A promise to consumers that they should aspire to own something else, go somewhere else, be someone else. But what if they want simply to be themselves, to be positive about who they already are? A simple pursuit, perhaps, but nonetheless challenging in a marketing ecosystem that celebrates perfectionism, particularly when it comes to marketing to women.
An industry on pause
Fourteen years lie between the launch of Dove’s "Real beauty" activity and Sport England’s genre-defying "This girl can" campaign – a glacial pace of change. Kate Dale, head of brand and digital strategy at Sport England, believes if you portray only unrealistically flawless women in the media, all women are bound to be left feeling inadequate. It is this belief, she says, that has provided a creative springboard to "This girl can", which, since 2015, has only ever featured real women.
According to Dale, one of the main issues we face in advertising is that although women are no longer depicted as "just" housewives, as they were 20 or 30 years ago, we are still by and large showing women who, by Western standards, are Photoshopped to physical perfection; no cellulite, no wrinkles – put simply, unrealistic.
She says: "We need to stop and question what mental effect this is having on us – and our daughters and granddaughters."
As consumers are increasing their focus on the impact of their digital diet on their wellbeing, so it is only right that the marketing industry, too, reappraises the impact of its output on our mental wellbeing.
The mindful kids of Instagram
In the midst of a social-media revolution, the lens via which consumers view themselves and the world around them has shifted dramatically. Social channels have provided a vibrant platform for consumers to express themselves, through movements such as body positivity, but they have also amplified the pressure applied by that perfect life you aren’t living. A growing consumer awareness of this tension provides a challenge for marketers, who have honed their craft around building aspiration.
Matty Tong, partner at creative consultancy Whistlejacket, says that marketing is still all about creating aspiration, but what we aspire to is changing. "What is happening is the whole popularisation of self-help. Mindfulness has become mainstream," she explains.
"They have real issues, which makes them more human, and can lead people to better engage with them"
Rebecca Smith, consumer behavioural analyst at Canvas8
In line with this, the traditional "achievement economy" is falling apart at the seams. Its place, for many young consumers, is being taken by a desire to campaign and make a stand, sometimes for no greater cause than themselves.
As social media continues to face significant growing pains, the performative living and excess personified by "The rich kids of Instagram" is coming under fire. Rebecca Smith, consumer behavioural analyst at Canvas8, says that not everyone wants to live the glamorous life of a jetsetter or aspire to something extraordinary. She adds: "For many people, life goals are more subtle – think buying a house and working a fulfilling job. But more importantly, people just want to feel represented."
Pointing to the rise of social influencers, Smith points out that they are usually perceived as more relatable than traditional celebrities, because they are viewed more as a peer, with their own worries and concerns. "They have real issues, which makes them more human, and can lead people to better engage with them," she says.
Kenya Hunt, deputy editor and fashion features director at Elle UK, argues that social media is helping to drive a feeling of greater inclusivity when it comes to body positivity and representation of diverse body types, which we’re seeing carried through by brands such as Dove. "There is definitely room for more progress, but, thanks to the power of platforms like social media, we’re starting to see that slowly happen," she adds.
A flawed reality
So if perfection risks alienating significant numbers of consumers will we now see an increasing array of brands embracing consumers’ "flawed reality"? Maks Fus-Mickiewicz, network director at Tremors and a former journalist at The Future Laboratory, says the problem with viewing this shift in marketing as one toward "flawed reality" is that in fact what we are seeing is simply reality and should be treated as such. "Using models who don’t meet traditional beauty standards, girls showing armpit hair and fetishising, it is tired," he adds.
"I would question the use of the phrase ‘flawed reality’"
Rachel Pashley, head of female tribes consulting at J Walter Thompson Londonn
In essence, brands clumsily attempting to reverse-engineer authenticity, or viewing inclusivity as a "fad" will quickly run out of steam. Instead, brands need to look at their core values and ask themselves not only how they are depicting their consumers, but also how they make them feel.
The notion that contemporary representation demands that brands embrace consumers’ flaws is, then, overly simplistic, because what has in the past been defined as "flawed" is in itself inherently problematic.
"I would question the use of the phrase ‘flawed reality’," Rachel Pashley, head of female tribes consulting at J Walter Thompson London, says. "Who decided it’s flawed? And who gets to decide what constitutes perfection?"
She contends that by introducing more diverse images of women’s bodies we can start to democratise beauty and reinforce the fact that there isn’t one vision of what is beautiful and real. According to JWT’s Women Index research, conducted in 2016, the marketing industry still has a long way to go on this: 87% of UK women said that when it comes to female imagery, the advertising and film world needs to catch up with the real world.
If the gap between marketing and the real world could be bridged by hyperbole alone, then based on the number of times brands and agencies have used the word "authenticity", it would have happened long ago. The industry may have reached "peak authenticity", but this focus is yet to have a meaningful and positive impact on its work.
Marie Agudera, strategy director at Fold7, concurs that authenticity is becoming a sensationalised term. "While it’s true that consumers are looking for authenticity from brands, it’s also true that some brands have made authenticity their marketing strategy, rather than a business one," she says. "As a result, they come across as manufactured, which is the opposite to authentic."
In this vein, body positivity and fair representation are worthy goals, but not every brand has established the right grounding to achieve them.
"Such moves come across as self-serving or ‘purpose-washed’, so brands have to think hard about the link their organisation has to body issues and what they can hope to achieve by getting involved, for their audiences as well as for themselves, and, therefore, how reasonable their involvement is," Agudera explains.
Kalle Hellzen, executive creative director at 180 Kingsday, says that "real" doesn’t live in the output, but in the outcome."This shouldn’t be a pursuit of realism for realism’s sake. To be ‘real’ means creating something truthful and meaningful, rather than holding up a mirror."
Indeed, while more brands are setting out to make a positive impact through greater inclusivity, often they end up reflecting a fake reality that fails to connect with consumers.
Rania Robinson, managing director at Quiet Storm, explains: "Advertisers are often trying to present realism, but end up doing so in fake way. I’m thinking of that Heineken ad when so called ‘real people’ came together with different views and have to collaborate together to build a bar. But the situation felt unreal. You wouldn’t know the people featured were real – assuming they were."
A positive-feedback loop
Building consumers’ confidence and positivity about who they already are offers brands a new opportunity to connect. Laurier Nicas Alder, head of social at TMW Unlimited, says we are in the next generation of sharing, where consumers are not necessarily asking "what to share" but rather "what not to share".
Trends such as #MondayMotivation on Twitter and Instagram fit into this continuous content loop. The casual approach to sharing lends itself to a positive slant, especially when brands are creating ephemeral social content for Instagram Stories or Snapchat, but that’s not necessarily how a consumer wants to see them act.
There remains a gap between consumer expectations and brand communications, at a time when cultural trends move fast, amplified by social media. Alexei Edwards, head of social media at Tribal Worldwide London, says many brands are not set up to shift with the demands of the time and the feedback loop on social media.
"Agile is a word that’s often used, but rarely realised," he adds. "To build your business around causes, like outdoor clothing brand REI has done, or to produce a campaign such as Bodyform/Libresse’s ‘Blood normal’, takes chutzpah, and it’s brands that embrace change with authenticity that will move from strength to strength and not stagnate in the vestige of outmoded practices."
To better reflect this raw, unfiltered reality of consumers’ lives, brands are, in turn, embracing more raw forms of communication. Maddie Raedts, founder and chief creative officer at marketing agency IMA, argues that in the realms of social media, live, in-the-moment, unfiltered content, such as vlogs, live-streaming and Instagram stories, is far more engaging than static, filtered content. "This goes back to the relatability factor," she says. "Consumers want to feel a sense of connection with a brand and know that they truly understand them."
One brand successfully navigating this is the breast cancer awareness charity CoppaFeel!, which uses social media and body positivity to better connect with women.
Natalie Kelly, the charity’s chief executive, cites a disparity between behaviours and images posted online and how comfortable people actually feel with their bodies. "There seems to be a certain physical standard which people strive to achieve, but our message at CoppaFeel! is all about knowing what is normal for you, and feeling confident to act on anything that changes," she says.
She adds that positivity is a key value at the charity: "Putting positivity at the heart of our communications is part of being an inclusive organisation, which seeks to support and empower people in order that they regularly self-check and hopefully prevent late-stage diagnoses.
"Social media is a valuable platform to put these positive messages across, and engaging with our audiences in this way is all part of our role in normalising getting to know your body. If people don’t feel confident and comfortable with themselves, they may feel less inclined to be proactive in self-checking and paying attention to their bodies’ needs."
The shift to substance
If advertising has in the past been based predominantly on capitalising on consumers’ fears and offering up a product or service to solve real or perceived problems or flaws, does this new age of self-determination demand something different from marketing?
According to Dale, the answer to this question is categorically "yes". She believes a real shift in culture is already afoot. She explains: "Women just simply will not stand for being told that they should have the perfect body – and will take to social media to let the world know this."
Pointing to the outcry over The FA’s tweet that, following their return from the 2015 World Cup, members of the England women’s football team could "go back to being mothers, partners and daughters", and Protein World’s infamous "Beach body ready" ad campaign, Dale describes the public backlash as "inspiring".
"It’s a rebellion with a snowball effect, people are tired of feeling they have to look and act a certain way in order to meet society’s body-image expectations"
Brenda Cresswell, founder of online lingerie retailer Bare Necessities
"[It showed] female consumers banding together to stand up for what they believe in and leveraging the power of social to say no to unacceptable advertising, leading the way in helping one another to manage their own fear of judgement," she says. "In our campaign, we also wanted to stick two fingers up to this kind of thinking."
Consumers, buffered by their social-media profiles, increasingly have the confidence to call out brands that attempt to capitalise on their perceived insecurities.
Pashley says the new values of contemporary femininity are self-determined and confident, they are not the bygone values of pretty passivity that the word feminine evokes. "Women are very much the subject, not the passive object, of their own lives and they know it," she adds. "Fifty per cent of women globally claim to be the major breadwinner; in the UK, almost one third of women have earnings that are equal to or more than their spouse. Seventy-four per cent of UK women said they’re tired of seeing the same attractive, ditzy female character in a show and 49% make a point of watching content with more complex female characters – highlighting the demand and impatience for change."
Brenda Cresswell, founder of online lingerie retailer Bare Necessities, says it has been refreshing to see a rise in the championing of body positivity over the past year, with social-media influencers at the forefront. "It’s a rebellion with a snowball effect, people are tired of feeling they have to look and act a certain way in order to meet society’s body-image expectations," she adds. "We are well aware of the dangers of striving for this and it’s simply impossible to achieve, because the ‘perfect body’ can’t be defined."
The new normal
Just as the perfect body is beyond definition, for many brands, embracing this new era of positivity remains out of reach. While consumers have been imprisoned by their own perceived flaws and insecurities, businesses remain equally paralysed by the fear of judgement of others, particularly their shareholders. Nonetheless, despite the pace of change having been painfully slow, standing still is no longer an option.
Camilla Kemp, group managing director at M&C Saatchi, says that for years Dove’s raison d’être has been to celebrate "real women" and campaign against unrealistic, unattainable, unreal beauty. It has, she adds, been a relatively lone voice, but that is changing.
"What’s exciting now is fashion-first brands, like ASOS, have rejected airbrushing and are showing us that gorgeous women can inspire us by modelling beautiful clothes while showing off their stretch marks, too," she says. "The change here is that having a more candid, while still aspirational, view of women isn’t defining their entire brand, it’s just part of what they do."
This new normal may be a long way off. After all, marketing must go through its own transformation. The body-positivity movement is not a passing fad, but rather a reflection of a changing consumer landscape that celebrates individuals not for what they look like or buy, but for who they really are.