Dove Needs to Clean Up Its Act if it Hopes to Survive the Identity War
In the seven weeks I’ve had a baby living with me, I’ve been the main bath-giver. I didn’t buy the bath soap — I believe it was part of a gift my wife, Katie, received at the baby shower. We use Baby Dove’s Baby Tip to Toe Wash. I don’t know how many baths my son has had. Seven? Ten? Eight-and-a-half if you count that time my wife jumped in the shower with him because he exploded with poop, pee and puke all at once, drenching them both? Regardless of my son’s frequency in the tub, it wasn’t until today that I noticed the copy on the back of the soap bottle.
“As a mother you know that bath time is precious – but did you know that after every bath baby’s skin can lose moisture up to 5 times faster than yours?”
I instantly found this copy problematic. (It's not for its lack of commas, which it has.) It only took me to read the second word for me to stop and ask the question, why is Baby Dove speaking exclusively to mothers? Is Dove sexist? Genderist? Does Dove not want gay fathers using their product? What does Dove have against single dads or families whose mother died tragically? Right!? What about them!? All things being equal and double standards being what they are...
Let’s be perfectly clear: I do not take issue Baby Dove’s word choice because I’m a dad who gives the baths. I take issue with it as a copywriter.
I’ve worked on enough marketing materials, advertising campaigns and product packaging to understand that the most effective work speaks directly to the target audience as an individual. “As a mother” is not a bad way to speak to the buyer and user of the soap especially when you consider that historically, Dove products were developed and marketed for women. In the last few years, the company has made efforts to bring more men into the fold, according to YouGov BrandIndex. Maybe women are still the leading buyers of Baby Dove products. I don’t know, was unable to find any stats confirming or contradicting that. What we do know for sure is that mothers are not the only people giving baths or caring about the moisture levels of their children’s skin. What we also know is that in today’s climate of absolute inclusivity, Dove screwed the pooch here.
Companies spend big bucks on marketing and advertising. In 2017, the world’s two biggest consumer goods advertisers were Proctor & Gamble ($10.5 billion) and Dove's parent company, Unilever ($9.5 billion). In 2015, Dove spent $190 million on media advertising in the U.S. That does not account for the budget paid to the agencies who worked on the campaigns and created the packaging.
You probably recall the whoopsie Dove had last year when a social media campaign went awry after it appeared Dove was saying that using its products will clean up your darker skin so you’ll be nice and lily white. The image that made the Internet Hulk out showed a black woman lifting her shirt to reveal a white woman. Bad move, right? Yep. Part of the problem is that the ad, a video, in full then showed the white woman lifting her shirt over head to reveal a third woman of darker complexion. Not as bad, right? Yep again.
What the advertising agency didn’t think about was the easy opportunity for the ad to be taken out of context, which is exactly what happened. As a result, Dove was accused of racism, both of the modern and vintage kind.
After all that, Dove ought to have learned that everyone is hyper-sensitive, and you had better make your marketing and advertising’s inclusivity fool- and Internet Rage-proof. And they did, sort of. At the beginning of the year, Unilever threatened to reduce the amount of dough it would spend on digital advertising. “In terms of content, Unilever plans to tackle gender stereotypes in advertising and improve its own brand messaging after missing the mark on a Dove campaign last year that led to a social media backlash,” Business Insider reported.
And yet, there on my Baby Dove Baby Tip to Toe Wash is a gender stereotype. Maybe it’s old packaging, but I doubt it. Although, to Dove’s credit, on their website, the product’s page has a broader explanation than its other products, and stays neutral by using the word “parent” instead of mother or father. So, I have to applaud them there.
However, the problem persists. And it’s a problem that isn’t Dove’s making. It’s a problem that makes marketing and advertising not only a challenge to get right and be impactful but closer to being impossible to do. It’s the problem of the Internet Rage Monsters and the social cause for absolute inclusivity.
The idiom, “You can’t please everyone all the time” no longer matters. Today, when it comes to product marketing, if you don’t please everyone all the time, you’re going to upset enough people so much that their digital pitchforks and torches can destroy your brand in an afternoon.
What’s the solution? The death of targeted marketing, maybe. Let’s go back to my kid’s bottle of soap.
How should Baby Dove have handled that copy? They could have written: “As a parent...” But that’s not good enough. What about the guardians? What about the grandparents? What about the nannies? Should it have been, “As a caregiver...”? And let’s not overlook the name of the product, Baby Tip to Toe Wash. What if the baby was born without feet? How insensitive is that?
If I were the director of copy, I’d suggest the following: “You know that bath time is precious.” Don’t specifically identify anyone other than the buyer, whomever and whatever that may be. It’s just as accurate.
Other than removing opportunity to upset the Rage Profiteers — which would destroy targeted marketing — I don’t know the best way to win the Battle of Inclusivity in today’s Identity War. What I do know is that one simple fix is to stop thinking that only mothers can, um, mother, the child. Gender is quickly becoming as fluid as bath water and mothers and fathers will continue to blur the traditional lines of parenting responsibilities.
Until then, people are going to get pissed at things like copywriting on the back of a bottle of soap. Not me, remember. I just found it to be a missed opportunity from the one company that should have learned its lesson — no matter how trivial the lesson may seem to the calm and collected mind.
We're living in a hyper-sensitive world. It's an overcorrection from the tradition of horrors bestowed upon people of color and women, but it's where we're at. Maybe we're all a bunch of babies, but sensitivity — no, awareness — in marketing and advertising is key. Dove needs to clean up its act if it hopes to keep America clean throughout the dirty Identity War.