By Amit Bapna | Editor-at-large

March 8, 2022 | 7 min read

This International Women’s Day, we catch up with Dove’s executive vice-president Alessandro Manfredi and agency Forsman & Bodenfors Shanghai to hear the story behind the recent ‘My Beauty, My Say’ campaign challenging beauty stereotypes in China.

Dove has been a leader in crafting creative work that has been impactful and purposeful while championing the brand’s ‘Real Beauty’ in all of its markets. Many of its campaigns have created a lot of buzz and helped in establishing the brand’s credentials as an advocate for representing real beauty as it is in real life.

Taking this positioning ahead, the brand team identified a challenge that was becoming bigger in the China and Asia markets, with the advancement in mobile technologies and applications in these markets.

Across China, for instance, more and more young women would never think of posting an entirely unedited picture of themselves, with data showing that 78% of women will retouch or add filters to their selfies before posting. The social pressure of always looking your best online has triggered more people – not just celebrities or influencers – to alter characteristics in their appearances that they believe are flawed.

Dove decided to create a conversation around this challenge being faced by women to show how it is impacting them and what can be done to tackle this. Alessandro Manfredi, executive vice-president of Dove, tells The Drum: “Dove’s strategy is to drive systemic change, one that changes the beauty industry for the better. We want to create real tangible changes to the beauty industry, making it a positive space for everyone.”

Taking the ‘real beauty’ pledge forward

Dove has done some category-leading work over the years to shatter beauty stereotypes. Manfredi explains: “It’s become Dove’s mission to make a positive experience of beauty universally accessible to every woman.”

It has been doing this by driving representation in advertising and also investing in the education of the next generation of girls through the creation of the Dove self-esteem project in 2004, which provides body confidence and self-esteem education on a global scale, he adds.

Dove’s campaign around ‘digital distortion’ is a continuation of its ‘real beauty’ pledge. “Our commitment [is] to always portray women as they are in real life – letting everyone know that the women in our ads are just as you’d see them in real life,” adds Manfredi.

The Chinese beauty paradox – and Dove’s solution

The concept of beauty in China has reached an evolutionary cusp. Research has revealed that seven out of 10 women in China retouch their selfies before posting, which can often result in a conventional image of beauty that loses any sense of the real woman behind the selfie. In Chinese, this is described as ‘face blind.’

Selfie-taking and photo-editing leads users to compare their actual appearance to an idealized and unrealistic retouched appearance that is impossible to achieve in real life. Scientific studies have shown that young women who edit and post selfies to social media can report feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem.

To tackle this emerging trend, Dove launched ‘My Beauty, My Say’ in collaboration with the creative collective Forsman & Bodenfors Shanghai. The campaign, in a documentary-style film, follows several young Chinese women who share their personal stories regarding their appearance and talk about their beauty anxiety.

Marketing and responsibility can go together

With the rise of social media, digital distortion is now happening on a much bigger scale, by younger people and without regulation. There is a lot of creativity and expression of self-identity using filters, but when editing apps are used to digitally distort images to conform to unrealistic beauty standards that cannot be achieved in real life, it can be damaging to the self-esteem of young people.

Manfredi says: “Dove wants to highlight this issue and provide tools to parents and carers to help young people navigate social media in a positive way.” Dove’s strategy is to drive systemic change – one that changes the beauty industry for the better, he adds.

The Dove self-esteem project tools are co-developed with leading body image experts and proven with independent research to positively impact young people’s self-esteem. Since it started, the Dove self-esteem project has become part of the curriculum in several countries. It has reached more than 70 million young people, and is on track to reach 250 million young lives by 2030.

The creative story behind the campaign

The campaign consists of a documentary-style film, as well as non-edited pictures of the women participating in the campaign. It has been launched in China and there are plans to launch it globally too.

The issue of digital distortion had to be tackled with empathy and honesty, for which they needed to have women express the real-world pressure that creates the desire to digitally distort their photos in their own words, says Sherry Shi, executive creative director at Forsman & Bodenfors Shanghai.

Elaborating on the making of the campaign, Shi says: “We chose to shoot in a documentary style, with only one chance to capture their real stories. There were no ‘cuts’ or ‘second takes’ to fix anything, nor any ‘voice-over reading.’” It was even harder because there was no script, so they had to adapt based on their response to elicit real emotional connection, she adds.

Shi recalls a particularly emotional anecdote while shooting. One of the interviewees whispered “thank you” to them after the shoot, and said: “Thank you for reminding me. I’ve always worn only black for a very long time to hide my body shape. Now I just want to go buy bright colors again to express who I am inside.”

Taking the conversation beyond the film

To give the campaign more of a voice, Dove has partnered with one of China’s most popular content platforms Sohu, and has also sponsored popular reality talk show On Her Way Home. A social engagement campaign has been activated on the Weibo platform to record real girls sharing about real beauty via video or photos.

In addition, there will be a photographic exhibition with 100 real girls in Shanghai as the final offline event of this campaign, where real women from the reality talk show and some of the social campaign participants will join in the exhibition to share real beauty stories.

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