A consumer group accused Unilever of hypocrisy Tuesday for running conflicting advertising campaigns -- one for Dove that praises women and their natural beauty and one for Axe that the group said "blatantly objectifies and degrades" them.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched a letter-writing effort on its website and demanded that the company pull ads for the Axe line of grooming products for men, which one online pitch says makes "nice girls turn naughty."
Unilever shouldn't be commended for Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" while promoting products with a starkly different message, said Susan Linn, the consumer group's director and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
"The campaign says they're going to help girls to resist a toxic marketing environment but they're creating that environment as well," Linn said.
Unilever spokeswoman Anita Larson said the Axe ads were clearly spoofs.
The Dove campaign is serious, she said, and "dedicated to making women feel more beautiful."
"Each brand effort is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience," she said.
The owner of dozens of food, home care and beauty brands, Unilever has had success with both its Dove and Axe promotional campaigns.
Advertisements for each have won awards but take different approaches.
Kelly O'Keefe, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University AdCenter, said Unilever was "playing with fire" if it was thinking that the divergence "wouldn't be picked up on at some point."
"When you take a stance," as Dove has with its anti-beauty industry marketing, "it does raise the game," O'Keefe said.
A recent Axe TV ad showed a young woman who, spotting a man wearing Axe body spray in a grocery store, shoved a wheelchair out of her way to get close to him, gyrating and singing "bom chicka wah wah."
That and similar advertisements spawned a music video in which lingerie-clad pole-dancing women sing about "skimpy thongs."
The Axe line's U.S. website says that women turn into "lust-crazed vixens" around men wearing Axe, whose fragrance "acts upon the female libido and stimulates the clothing-removal section of the female brain." The company recently hired comedian David Spade to help make "The World's Dirtiest Film," a collection of clips sent in by young men who are encouraged to engage in "dirty sexy fun" so they can wash it away with Axe Shower Gel.
Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" has been extolled by women's groups and the advertising industry for its message that the beauty industry sets unrealistic standards for women. The company runs the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, a nonprofit that seeks to educate girls about a "wider definition of beauty."
An award-winning Dove video from 2006, "Evolution," traced the transformation of an ordinary woman with blemishes into a billboard beauty, communicating that even supermodels don't really look like supermodels.
Last week, Dove released "Onslaught," a video juxtaposing images of young girls walking to school with shots of thin models in beauty magazines and TV ads telling women how to slim down or become prettier. The video, released on the Internet, ends with the line "talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, affiliated with Harvard University, is a coalition of healthcare professionals and advocacy groups.
On its website, it asks people to send Unilever a form e-mail or letter urging the company to "end your sexist and degrading advertising for Axe grooming products."