The New Extra-Soft Sell

Weight Watchers wants us to know they're on our side. "Diets are mean," say the ads in their new "Stop Dieting. Start Living" campaign. But isn't WW a diet plan? Meanwhile Tylenol has also gotten altruistic, with print advertisements offering friendly advice on how to avoid aches and pains that might prompt people to perhaps buy their product. "Sit up straight. Slouching can cause headaches," one slogan advises.

We've entered the age of the really counterintuitive ad. Companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have been sprinkling their Web sites and print ads with tidbits of health advice and self-esteem affirmations, but not so much about why you need their product. Have they forgotten the bottom line? No. What they're doing is banking on the idea that they can win customers with flattery and lots of helpful information.

"No one doubts the fact that they are doing whatever they do to make a profit for themselves," says C. B. Bhattacharya, a marketing professor at Boston University. "But if the consumer is able to say that they also have what's good for me in their mind, then that's a big, big plus. Of course they want to make money, but they also care about my own well-being." These campaigns are not a sign of ad execs going soft. Rather, it's savvy marketers trying to get playing nice to pay off big.

Campaigns like these are certainly a departure from the norm. Beauty and health advertising typically operates under two basic models: show the customer the bombshell they could be with the help of a certain makeup or diet, or show the fearful consequences of declining: the horrible frizzy hair or monstrous pimples that will develop if you dare pass up a certain shampoo or face wash. Yet these companies are going out of their way to tell you why you don't need their product or, in the case of Tylenol, to tell you how not to get a headache in the first place.

It's an odd tactic, but one that has worked for at least one company. Dove began telling consumers that "real women have curves," and sales went up. The company's "Campaign for Real Beauty", which began in 2004, urges women to love their bodies as-is while subtly pushing new lines of anticellulite lotion and self-tanner. The ads ranged from huge billboards with realistically proportioned women to a Super Bowl spot bashing the beauty industry for promoting ever more unrealistic images of female beauty. The ads "hold up [female] stereotypes and say, 'Hey, let's talk about this'," says Janet Kestin, one of the campaign's co-creators. Dove doesn't release its sales figures, but the company says that since the campaign began it has crossed the $1 billion sales mark, entered a half-dozen new product categories and picked up a slew of advertising awards for the innovative videos, print and TV ads. And last year Dove broke another unspoken rule with an ad that featured naked (but tastefully arrayed) women over 50 to promote its "Pro-Age" beauty product line. (Dove says TV networks declined to air the ad. It is viewable on the company's Web site.)

Jean Grow, who teaches marketing at Marquette University, explains that Dove was so successful because the new customers the company picked up were fiercely loyal; they felt that purchasing Dove products was analogous to making a statement about women's beauty advertising. "By paying more for their product you say that you believe in what they are doing," says Grow. The advertising turned a beauty brand into a moral statement—not bad for what started as a bar of soap.

Now other health and beauty companies are jumping on board with similar "We're just here to help" campaigns. Weight Watchers explains their "Stop Dieting. Start Living" as an attempt to empathize with the customer and say something along the lines of "We understand and … we know diets have almost come to equal quick fix and fad," says Cheryl Callan, the company's senior vice president of marketing. She's open about Weight Watchers' objective: that consumers will reward them for their frank discussion of fad dieting. "We're hoping they give us credit for being refreshingly honest," she says. The other diet industry behemoth, Jenny Craig, has taken a similarly friendly approach. It has ditched the industry standard of dramatic before-and-after shots, a size 12 miraculously transformed into a size 2. Now the company has spokeswoman Queen Latifah telling potential dieters that they can be "realistic" and that losing 5 percent is good enough.

Boston University's Bhattacharya says that these honesty-based campaigns are particularly successful because they build a sense of reciprocity between the advertiser and consumer. Traditional advertising is usually a one-way relationship, in which advertisers try to sell the consumer a product. But these campaigns allow for the relationship to flow both ways: the advertiser does something nice for consumers—tells them how to prevent a headache or increases their self esteem—so the consumers do something nice for the advertiser—buy the product.

This kind of advertising also stands out. Perhaps that's why it has caught on so fast in an industry where there's perfection fatigue. Perhaps women are finally sick of unreal-looking supermodels and actresses. "It's not hitting you over the head, saying, 'You should look like this'," says Adweek's ad critic, Barbara Lippert. "It's stripped down and more bare."

Whether or not campaigns like these can outperform the standard look-like-this-model pitch remains to be seen. Marquette's Grow is quick to point out that these anti-advertising advertisements are still far from the norm. Flip through a fashion magazine and you're more likely to see someone who resembles a stick-thin cover girl than one of Dove's models.

And while the Dove campaign was an unprecedented hit, others may not share in the same financial success. Grow thinks that Weight Watchers' championing an antidiet message is too much of a stretch. Weight Watchers is too enmeshed in the weight loss industry to have any credibility in critiquing it. "Their product is the antithesis of what they are saying," says Grow.

That contradiction marks the fine line these companies must walk with campaigns that both criticize and promote their industries. Even Dove, the self-esteem champion, is having an increasingly difficult time walking the walk. Its new "Go Fresh" campaign, debuting today, is a minidrama about twentysomethings struggling with jobs, friends, love interests, and, of course, loving themselves. For the next five weeks it will air, ironically, during a commercial break from "The Hills," an MTV show one of whose stars, Heidi Montag, been very open about getting breast implants and a nose job (she told Us Weekly she "hated" her nose).

And then there's the uncomfortable fact that Dove's parent company, Unilever, also owns Slim-Fast, marketer of "the hunger control shake," a product whose ads show women saying, "Goodbye roll, hello control!" So much for embracing those curves.

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