A bare shoulder flashes on the screen to the riffs of a flamenco guitar. A feminine hand on an unclothed waist follows, and the gorgeous face of a dark-haired woman appears with--yikes!--all her wrinkles in living color. The camera pulls back, and-- double yikes!--she's naked. Next, a grinning full-figured woman with silver-streaked hair. Then comes an age-spotted shoulder. Finally, a long-legged beauty with cropped gray hair and--egads!--a lined neck and a furrowed brow poses in the buff, save for a pair of dangling earrings and a cuff bracelet.
These stunning images, shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, are the centerpiece of a counterintuitive new ad campaign by the maker of Dove soap to promote its latest line of beauty products. In its first global launch ever, Dove hopes to attract the 40 million or so baby-boomer women in the wrinkle-war zone with a provocative twist: instead of demonizing wrinkles with "antiaging" products, Dove celebrates them and calls its new line Pro Age. For the Anglo-Dutch consumer giant Unilever, Dove's $52 billion parent company, the stakes are high: total sales in 2006 grew just 4%. Indeed, since 2004, Unilever's sales growth has been in the single digits, while key competitor Procter & Gamble, which owns rival beauty powerhouse Olay, is growing twice as fast and enjoying healthier profit margins (22% in 2006). Dove needs a hit, but in a global culture obsessed with looking younger, will the older-is-O.K. approach catch on?
"We live in an antiage culture, no question," says Susie Orbach, a British psychoanalyst and author, who helped conduct a Unilever/Dove--sponsored beauty survey of women in nine countries. Antiaging skin care accounts for nearly $13 billion in sales worldwide, according to Euromonitor, and it is on the way to $17 billion by 2010. Dove's study found that 91% of women over 50 feel they're not represented realistically in the media. "They feel invisible," Orbach says.
That's one thing the women in Dove's Pro Age campaign certainly are not. It builds on the success of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," a series of ads with full-figured women that earned it every marketer's dream--an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The Pro Age television, print and Web ads (one deemed too racy for broadcast TV) feature real women, not models, all age 50 or over. "We want to widen the stereotypical view of beauty," says Dove's U.S. marketing director, Kathy O'Brien, 42.
But it might not be that easy for Dove to overturn the mind-set against aging gracefully. Boomers might say they want to look their age, but how they spend their money is another matter. How else to account for the more than 4 million Americans who got Botox injections last year? The antiaging mantra has spread beyond face creams. Revlon makes a line of "age-defying makeup," and Crest makes "Rejuvenating Effects" toothpaste. Even winemaker Robert Mondavi has jumped into the beauty pool with a luxury antiaging skin-care line, Davi ($175 for a 2-oz. jar), packed with grape-seed extract, an antioxidant.
To win older women over, Dove puts a positive spin on the unhappy moment when a woman buys her first jar of antiwrinkle cream. "The concept is linguistically brilliant," says Cheryl Swanson, a managing partner at Toniq, a brand-strategy firm in New York City. "Skin care has typically been about fighting back--age defying. It's been almost warrior-like. Take a stance against this natural thing that's happening to you. This is different." The strategy tells women, implicitly, that they can look better without trying too hard.
Unilever isn't the only company playing to women who want to look good but still look their age. L'Oréal Paris, for example, markets skin-care products targeted to women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. "It's all about looking your best at any age," says Carol Hamilton, president of L'Oréal Paris. Last spring the company signed the actress Diane Keaton, 61, to be the spokeswoman for Age Perfect Pro-Calcium skin cream, a product for "mature, fragile skin."
Dove's campaign goes much further in rejecting the conventions of beauty marketing. So far, in fact, that some of the posts on Dove's own website reacting to the new ads have been critical of the reveal-all. "The public is not ready to see that," one post noted; another called the ads "a little too vivid." What many think is beautiful and refreshing, others find jarring and offensive. "The ad isn't pretty," says Patricia Pao, CEO of the Pao Principle, a marketing consulting firm in New York City. "Dove is right that we don't want to look 25 when we're 50, but we don't want to look so natural either."
When it comes to what's inside the bottle, Dove's Pro Age products are much like other antiaging products. The key ingredient, alpha hydroxy acid, is found in many antiaging products and helps exfoliate the top layers of skin to reveal fresher skin underneath. "It's a little weird," says Pao. "It's like saying, 'Here, use our products that have this key antiaging ingredient in it, and--guess what?--you'll look good, but you'll look your age.'"
Still, Dove's approach could add momentum to a subtle backlash against our deep-seated fear of aging. The clothing retailer Chico's, for example, uses silver-haired models in its ads. W, the fashion-world bible, recently called women who let their tresses go gray "silver foxes." Even if Dove's new products fail in the marketplace, the company's Pro Age campaign sends women a powerful message. "We're seeing a real shift in how people are approaching beauty," says Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, the author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty and one of the researchers in Dove's study. "Up to now, it's been about fighting aging with everything you have. Now you have a choice not to."