Last month New Yorkers found themselves immersed in a thought-provoking ad campaign that’s been taking over subway stations throughout Manhattan. Dove, renowned for its commitment to challenging conventional beauty standards, is at the forefront of this advertising endeavor with its “The Pits of New York” and #FreeThePits campaign, strategically launched just in time for the fashion week.
The campaign’s underlying message intended to resonate with women, shedding light on the impact of underarm insecurities, particularly in relation to clothing choices and social activities. Dove’s 2022 Underarm Confidence Survey further reveals a reality that a significant number of women feel subjected to judgment based on their underarms. Society’s fixation on promoting an ‘ideal’ underarm—one that’s hairless, smooth, odorless and evenly toned—adds to this issue.
However, despite campaigns like Dove’s seemingly heralding a positive shift in today’s advertising landscape, they have not been exempt from controversy. A notable instance was their 2017 Facebook ad for body wash, which depicted a Black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman. This ad drew immediate criticism from thousands of viewers who perceived it as having racist undertones. While Dove promptly responded and issued an apology on social media, the incident raised concerns about their approval procedures and whether a diverse group of individuals had the opportunity to review the ad before it went live.
PR practitioners, well-acquainted with the challenges of managing public perception, have found themselves at the forefront of these debates when things go awry. A recent case in point is Bud Light, which faced a barrage of criticism due to its association with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. In an attempt to salvage its image, the brand resorted to using a meme on social media, ironically mocking its own handling of the controversy. This approach backfired, drawing criticism from both PR experts and consumers alike. It further solidified the perception that the brand was mishandling the situation and jeopardizing its relationships with its customer base and the LGBTQ+ community. Bud Light’s experience is far from unique in the realm of poorly executed campaigns. The infamous 2017 Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner is another example of a brand missing the mark on social activism.
Dove’s recent campaigns, although well-intentioned, underscore the importance of scrutiny and diverse perspectives. In today’s age of “woke-washing,” brands face the challenge of finding the right balance between impactful messaging and avoiding harm. PR practitioners play a pivotal role in guiding these brands toward authentic connections with their audiences. In this era of heightened social awareness, the lessons drawn from both successful and misguided campaigns serve as valuable guidance for advertisers aiming to create a positive impact.