Unilever Disrobed: Interview With Dove/Axe Mashup Artist

axe_bomchickawahwahs1.jpgUpdate: 7-7-10 Added mashup video at the end Media transparency is more than a buzz word these days, as consumers connect the dots of who’s behind what, where money’s funneling from, and how we’re all being yanked around.

Industry mavericks are giving consumers a bit of a nudge to see that elephant in the living room, but it’s NOT just me…Honest.

Meet indie filmmaker Rye Clifton…The PSFK blog tipped me off to this “Message From Unilever video” prompting a fist pumping, “YES!” when seeing the Dove/Axe mashup revealing the polarity of two successful campaigns at blatantly cross purposes, raking in the kudos and cash under the Unilever brand.

Mind you, the blogosphere has been carping about the Unilever disconnect for ages, including me. From Dove’s Onslaught, to the skin lightening campaign heavily marketed to my fellow WLW delegates (which I wrote about here, and this blogger addressed in depth here, “Fair Though Hardly Lovely”) it’s clear Dove Love has been tainted a bit by some nefarious bedfellows…

CCFC has an advocacy arm swinging full tilt at the absurdity of the Unilever contradiction and insightful blogs like The Situationist and Healthbolt have covered the entire body image commentary expansively…

And, launching today, Lisa at Two Knives is taking up the issue of Corporate Babysitting in an entirely new lobbyist-style career path, Parents For Ethical Marketing.

Yep, the backlash has begun, we’re gonna have some fun now!

That said, as the old cliché goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so thanks to filmmaker Rye Clifton for paying it forward on film…the media language of youth.

Rye strikes me as somewhat akin to ‘The Accidental Activist’…filming more as a ‘whoa, lookie here what I found’ rather than as part of a passionista posse, and frankly, that’s part of the charm.

The film cleverly nails the Unilever contradiction with an agency-savvy eye, tongue in cheek, and an ethical question mark floating above our industry’s fuzzy heads…

It’s like lobbing a ‘gotcha’ into the industry court to see who returns the serve…

Why are we so enthused about it here at Shaping Youth?

Well, we’ve found that films like this are one of our MOST effective counter-marketing tools with kids…

“Lift the veil, reveal the tactics, show the truth, ignite a firestorm.”

It helps kids SEE what they’re buying into when they’re buying…(much like the Truth campaign’s anti-smoking videos)

Plus…this one is a freebie find we don’t have to produce ourselves!

User-generated content like this helps build critical thinking skills and awareness, and can turn into viral videos that strike ‘aha’ moments, energizing kids to spoof their own pop culture beliefs and branded antics multi-fold.

Rye’s piece also serves as a brilliant ‘call to action’ for our own Shaping Youth teen advisors to literally “flip and blip” their own creative messages with user-generated content.

The Flip video cam (or others like it) is a cheap, easy, plug-n-play ways for kids to quickly upload content to blipTV for immediate gratification…(thus the ‘flip & blip’ UGC we’re experimenting with in schools to snag those ‘Voices of Youth’ in ‘npr’ StoryCorps style)

Anyway, nice work, Rye, we’re hoping for an encore.

I’ve already pitched the concept, “How about doing an Onslaught knock-off showing how BOYS are being hammered with equal fervor?”

So we’ll see what gels…someone out there is bound to take the bait, eh?

Without futher ado, here are Rye’s answers to a dozen questions I posed. Enjoy, comment, voice your views!

Shaping Youth: What was your purpose/objective in your re-edit of the Dove/Axe mashup? (e.g. awareness, advocacy, irony, exposure)

Rye Clifton: First, I just want it to be clear that this video is something I did on my own… on my own time… and while I may be in the communications field, this is not endorsed by my employer or have anything to do with my day job.

This all came out of a conversation with one of my colleagues, Chris Wojda. He happened to mention reading an article in the LA Times, and I was floored. Not because I was offended by one campaign over the other, but both campaigns have received sooo much recognition…

AXE has taken home the top advertising strategy award for the past two years, and now Old Spice and TAG body spray are trying to use their same ‘tactics’ because their advertising is so effective.

Dove, on the other hand, has been winning creative awards and gaining recognition for ‘Real Beauty,’ a campaign that has turned the beauty industry on its head by shunning ads that feature stereotypical models.

I was shocked by the contradiction and couldn’t wait to tell someone. I’ve found the easiest way to make a point is a quick little video… I just didn’t realize how easy it would be to make… The footage really wrote itself.

Shaping Youth: Is there a “call to action” in play? (e.g. do you want viewers to ‘Ax the Axe’ a la CCFC’s advocacy campaign or is it more subtle in terms of hinting at a large multinational code of ethics and awareness, &/or holding our industry accountable by the threat of UGC media backlash from within our own circles?)

Rye Clifton: I think it is important for a company to really think about what they stand for. As a brand, you can’t be all things to all people. Charles Frith was one of the first people to write about the video, and brought up some international contradictions within Dove that I had never realized. This is when I realized the video stuck a chord.

Shaping Youth: What ethical guidelines do you feel advertisers, media/marketing should adhere to, if any?

Rye Clifton: Before advertisers/media/marketing is ever involved, a brand or a corporation needs honesty and accountability. We are more connected than ever, and if you try to put one over on your customers, people will react.

Shaping Youth: Do you feel corporate profiteering will always dominate social responsibility in our industry?

Rye Clifton: Companies are in business to make money. During the holidays a few years ago everyone stopped saying, “Christmas” because it wasn’t a universal message. There was a backlash and now we’re back to Christmas. Santa is back in business and everyone is happy.

S.Y. Editorial Comment: Call me the Grinch, I’m far from happy with our industry’s lack of ethics, but that point is definitely true on the pendulum swings of PC-ness.

Shaping Youth: Can you cite other examples of ‘disconnects’ in terms of multinational firms speaking out of both sides of their mouth?

Rye Clifton: Many successful multinational firms have many brands and many products that work for different people in different ways. The reason that the Dove/Axe contradiction is so powerful is that both campaigns are successful in their own right, AND the Dove campaign is written to cause a reaction…Unfortunately for Unilever, they also own some of the brands breaking Dove’s new ‘rules’ for advertising.

Shaping Youth: Do you feel Unilever has control over their brand umbrella? Why or why not?

Rye Clifton: No, but I don’t think they are looking to do that… but maybe they should start. Their many brands are strong, and stand on their own. Consumers are smarter and more informed than ever. We are connecting dots that were never meant to be connected. Going forward, I think brands should question what they are doing, and make sure they are comfortable with their actions.

It reminds me a bit of the dog food contamination scare a few months ago. All of a sudden the general public knew that one company owned the majority of all the dog food brands. Why would I now pay extra for the same ingredients as in their cheaper brands?

Shaping Youth: Do you feel this same ‘Onslaught’ of objectification and sexualization is coming at boys? Why or why not?

Rye Clifton: I really wish people would relax. America is obese. We also have a huge problem with eating disorders. Lets be normal, act normal… but not preach normal.

S.Y. Editorial Comment: Relax? Not easy when kids are showing up with appearance-based disorders directly tied to industry’s cultural cues…depression, self-worth, dieting, body building, teen plastic surgery. This synopsis on exposure to mass media, body shape concerns, etc. with close to 1500 teens in Australia shows direct ties to the TYPE of media consumption (e.g. music videos and prime time ‘soaps’) as well as the WAY it’s being ingested (mindless escapism vs. purposeful viewing) even over the quantity/number of hours. Ultimately, that drives the point home, “it’s the content, stupid.”

Shaping Youth: Do you feel boys are getting peer pressure to ‘get the babe’? If so, what campaigns do you feel reflect this the most? (besides Axe) If not, why is it so lopsided/unidirectional?

Rye Clifton: Not really. I remember being on the playground as a little kid. There have always been the popular kids, the geeks, the jocks, the musicians, the kids in theater, the fat kids… I’ve actually been part of all of those groups at one point of growing up. There are always pressures to fit in, and that is no different today.

S.Y. Editorial Comment: I need to meet Rye and show off our S.Y. data nuggets of the impact on kids…Even though we’re more on the same page than not from an ethical perspective, I’ve repeatedly seen this as a paramount obstacle to overcome with industry colleagues who claim ’twas ever thus.’ The downplay is profoundly misguided.

Yes, cliques and beauty ideals may have been present, but no, today’s 24/7 surround sound of objectification, sexism, perfectionism and direct marketing of kids’ insecurities for profit are not ‘the same’ as yesteryear. Not even close. A reprehensible ‘anything goes’ mentality with no moral compass regarding who’s being hurt and how is a ‘profit over public health’ issue that’s never mined childhoods with such exacting precision. Ever.

Shaping Youth: What demographics do you feel this is impacting the most in terms of toxicity?

Rye Clifton: I’m not sure what you mean by toxicity?

Shaping Youth: Do you feel kids are particularly harmed by this messaging, or is it universal (adults/teens/plethora of icons in media)

Rye Clifton: The thing that has people talking is the contradiction in the messaging. Dove has a relevant message for their target, as does AXE. Both have seen sales increases. Both brands are doing well. The question has become, “Where does Unilever stand?”

S.Y. Editorial Comment: Again, to me, (and to most parents) the higher level question is an ethical one, not ‘where does Unilever stand in brand contradiction’ but more, ‘can we appeal to marketer’s humanity to create a Socratic oath to ‘do no harm?’ Self-rein sure ain’t workin’!

Shaping Youth: Would you be interested in doing a knock-off/Onslaught video edit of male sexualization/objectification? If so why? If not, why not?

Rye Clifton: Sure. I’m up for anything that can cause people to think… Got any ideas?

Shaping Youth: Is the Martin Agency aware of your YouTube circulation? Do they support it? (e.g. Are they ‘onboard the cause’ or are you operating independently without regard to your agency affiliation?)

Rye Clifton: I am 100% independent on this issue.

Shaping Youth: Baker’s dozen bonus question: How can we (as media professionals) best ‘change the system’ from within? Is ‘ethics in advertising’ destined to be an oxymoronic phrase? Why/why not?

Rye Clifton: Bakers dozen… Is that some sort of a fat joke?

If we look deep enough into any issue, we can find something to be offended by. In some ways I feel I may have done this with Dove.

There is great merit in what they are doing, yet they are speaking out of both sides of their mouth… Skin-whitening creams and AXE/LYNX here and Europe.

I think marketers will always try to find the most relevant ways to connect with their audience. Going into the future, I think we’ll be a lot more careful to insure that we fully believe and back everything we are saying.

Hmn…Ya think?



  1. Amy, thanks for this: “Yes, cliques and beauty ideals may have been present, but no, today’s 24/7 surround sound of objectification, sexism, perfectionism and direct marketing of kids’ insecurities for profit are not ‘the same’ as yesteryear. Not even close. . . .”

    This seems to be one of the biggest obtacles to progress on these issues — people don’t believe that anything is different today than it was when they were kids.

    Have to work on that.

  2. Hey Lisa, yeah, ya think? Ironic, isn’t it?! There’s the quanity (e.g. media in the 60s/70s: 15 hours a week, media today: 44.5 hours…) and the quality (roadrunner/cartoon violence vs. Manhunt2?)

    Let’s see, 57% of kids 9-19 have accessed porn online, almost 70% of TV shows are sexually overt, but only 15% discuss risk/responsibility…72% of teens report sex on TV influences ‘their friends’ behavior a lot (gotta love that ‘my friends’ dodge…heehe. Does any parent ever fall for that anymore? “My friend wanted to know about”..birth control/AIDS/whatever)

    Yeah…I’d say it’s changed a tad…And frankly…I can spew stats and data until it would make your head spin, but I think Rye’s route is more impactful…

    I’ve gotta get my funding finished for “Body Blitz: Media, Shaping Youth” for as Rye’s video proves, “show and tell” is the wave of the media zeitgeist…It has the power to persuade beyond verbiage multifold, for sadly, no one reads copy with the same enthusiasm…

    Oh! And btw…not only is it not ‘the same’…It’s actually going in REVERSE….

    Sexualization-objectification-wise, we’re going BACKWARDS and no one seems to be SEEING it except those of us in the front lines working with kids and families up close and personal…bleh.

    Congrats on your new site, and I’m sure we’ll be partnering where it makes sense to do so!

  3. My, my, just stumbled upon more erudite industry commentary here…definitely some sharpies in this field…makes me hopeful we’ll all get a clue and start putting that intellect toward more meaningful pursuits!


  4. The spins just keep on comin’!!! This time, via the YPulse.com blog which sites this Businessweek piece by 3iYing about how the Dove campaign in general is making girls feel ‘bad’ about themselves…sheesh.

    I dunno gang…I think that’s a very shallow take on this conundrum…no one is saying you have ‘issues’ if there are parts of you that drive you nuts…I think they need to delve a bit deeper on that one…Body image and self acceptance are not finite in terms of being all one way or all another way…

    The Dove piece calls attention to the MEDIA MESSAGING proliferating the sphere, that’s all…

    Oh! And Anastasia’s tipsters also gave a heads-up on Jess Weiner’s new gig as a ‘Dear Abby’ for ‘body positive’ messaging (the ol’ be happy w/what you have scene) Here’s the site: http://www.doverealitydiaries.com/

    I remember attending the TBIO.org conference about selling stereotypes in Hollywood and Jessica was the MC…all about being comfy w/heavier bodies, races, etc. while inadvertently trashing the Hilary Duff/Hannah Montana ‘tall, thin, blonde’ beauty bit etc.

    —At the end of the conference after all of the debunking of myths, I had to approach her about the biggest stereotype and irony of all, which was the fact that the entire conf. was spent vilifying ‘a look’ which happens to be…well…um…me.

    Stereotypes go in ALL directions…(took a 16 year old to point that out to me, as you can see when I wrote about it in my post here: https://shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=255

    So Jess, I’m glad you feel good about yourself, but don’t knock down tall, thin, blondes to make a point about ‘beauty ideals’…(she thankfully ‘got it’ and announced on the microphone so all the teens in the crowd shared the ‘aha’ moment.)

    Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see where that site goes…
    and what they intend to do with it re: youth.

  5. This just in on ad spending…ahem. Just think of what we could do with $1 million per hour well spent…kids, healthcare, food resources, climate change…whew.

    Amazing…11/21/07 From Ad Age:
    “Procter & Gamble, which tops the Ad Age Global Marketers Report as the world’s largest advertiser, spends $1 million an hour, around the clock, around the world, on measured media.

    The Cincinnati-headquartered giant spent a total of $8.5 billion on advertising in 2006. Trailing far behind as No. 2 on the list was arch rival Unilever at $4.5 billion.”

    I’d like to ‘Axe’ some of that and turn the ‘Tide’…argh, brand recognition deeply embedded…;-)

  6. Ad Age has finally picked up on Rye Clifton’s mashup disrobing Unilever, and given it some press here:

    “Dove Viral Draws Heat From Critics
    Bloggers, Others: How Can Marketer of Axe Attack the Beauty Industry’s Ad Values?
    By Jack Neff

    Published: November 26, 2007
    When you unleash an “Onslaught” on YouTube, watch out for the counterattack.

    Dove’s viral video attack on beauty advertising has produced a surprisingly strong and enduring blowback against Unilever from activists, newspaper op-ed writers, bloggers and videographers who see it as hypocritical coming from the same company that markets Axe.

    This Unilever parody has garnered 40,000 views.

    To be sure, none of the critics is coming to the defense of beauty-industry advertising, linked in the “Onslaught” video to everything from low self-esteem to plastic surgery to bulimia. Rather, they’re attacking Unilever for simultaneously trotting out its own endless stream of buxom, scantily clad, sex-crazed women in ads supporting Axe.

    Sleight of hand
    In an op-ed titled “A Company’s Ugly Contradiction” in The Boston Globe earlier this month, contributor Michelle Gillett said, “Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads [for Axe] exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems.”

    WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather handles Dove. Bartle Bogle Hegarty, part owned by Publicis Groupe, handles Axe, and Edelman handles public relations for both brands.

    “Onslaught,” from Ogilvy, Toronto, has amassed about 1 million views on YouTube since its Oct. 1 debut, still well under the 12 million generated by its oft-honored predecessor, “Evolution,” whose viewership also got a boost from the new video.

    But even with lower viewership, “Onslaught” already has produced two rather trenchant critiques. The latest, with 40,000 views and numerous blog links, mashes the Dove video with Axe ads and morphs the original tagline “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does” to ” … before Unilever does.”

    Thanks to the power of digital targeting, display ads for Dove Pro-Age body lotion surrounded one blog post linked to that video last week.

    Insider speaks out
    As it turns out, the Dove-Axe mashup was an inside-the-industry job created by Rye Clifton, a senior strategic planner at Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. Mr. Clifton was quick to point out in a phone interview that the video was his own idea and done on his own time. Martin doesn’t represent any Unilever rivals, having parted ways with Burt’s Bees before the video was posted last month.

    Mr. Clifton said he was unaware Dove and Axe were owned by the same company until it was brought up by another planner during a conference. “My immediate thought was that would make a perfect video on YouTube,” Mr. Clifton said, adding it’s had more of an impact than he imagined, with more than 100 blog postings. While he was struck by the hypocrisy, he did concede a bit of professional rivalry also entered his mind, given the numerous industry honors Dove and Axe have received.

    “Onslaught” also accomplished what four years of racy Axe ads hadn’t — getting the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to demand Unilever stop running Axe ads. While the group already was aware of Axe and of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the specifics of the “Onslaught” push set it off.

    “The whole idea of ‘Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does’ certainly motivated us to do a campaign around this,” said a spokesman for the group. “Unilever is the beauty industry. To point fingers at other brands and at the same time be taking advantage of the same horrific marketing other companies are doing is incredibly hypocritical.”

    ‘Whack a Blonde’
    By last week, the “Onslaught” backlash had metastasized to blog bashing of another Unilever brand, Sunsilk. Blogger Lucinda Marshall, in an entry headlined, “Unilever ditches self-esteem as a marketing concept, embraces misogyny,” criticized a “Whack a Blonde” game on a new website for Sunsilk, colorshowdown.com (to be fair, the site has a “Whack a Brunette” game for disgruntled blondes as well).

    “Onslaught” also helped spawn a story in The Sacramento Bee probing controversies surrounding Axe, though the article, amid a cast of Axe-bashers, pointed to a women’s-studies student who finds the ads amusing.

    ‘Onslaught,’ the latest Dove viral, has drawn criticism, including a mashup.

    That’s exactly the point Unilever would like to make: Axe has just been poking fun all along, even if Dove is dead serious.

    “The Axe campaign is a spoof of ‘mating game’ and men’s desire to get noticed by women and not meant to be taken literally,” the company said in a statement. “Unilever is a large, global company with many brands in its portfolio. Each brand’s efforts are tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience.”

    Viral criticism
    That, however, is the sort of distinction social media’s transparency renders difficult, said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer for brand-monitoring firm Cymfony. “Only one in 100 people may know that Unilever owns both brands,” he said. “But that one person is likely to be participating in social media.”

    And when that one person tells the other 99, it can change the nature of the conversation fast, he said, noting a stream of comments about “Onslaught” recently on Shape.com that rapidly shifted from praise to condemnation of Unilever when a poster noted that the company also owns Axe.

    “Most people have been really positive about ‘Onslaught,'” said Stacie Bright, senior communications marketing manager for Unilever. The controversy, she said, “has just been part of the conversation.”

    Congrats all, we’re ALL a part of the ‘conversation!’ 😉 –AJ

  7. This video would have had a touch more legitimacy had it come from someone who didn’t make a living from advertising. A touch hypocritical, no?

    A planner in an advertising agency revealing that FMCG ad-campaigns are designed to sell products, and aren’t actually heart felt. Big scoop that.

    Still, props for getting yourself all that free publiciy. I’m sure it will fatten your takehome no end.

  8. Jonny, the guy you’re talking about, who I interviewed is Rye Clifton, and he was very upfront about working for an agency and unearthing the irony in the Dove/Axe campaign for all…so no big scoop there. He was all over Ad Age about it too.

    I chose to interview him based on his work on the mashup (which I felt was compelling and insightful) and stand by the fact that he created good work. As you may or may not know, Shaping Youth is a nonprofit, but we’re filled with ad agency creatives and brand marketing gurus who like to ‘use the power of media for POSITIVE change’ and if folks like Rye Clifton can make a grandiose point using YouTube as a vehicle for irony and a multi-eyeball distribution channel, we say power to ’em!!!

    🙂 Best, Amy

    p.s. I wonder if he DID get a bunch of publicity?

    I should ping him back for a follow up and see if he can do another mashup of irony on a cause-driven topic. ..

    (maybe the odd emulation of Kobe Bryant in China from the Olympic games, or the ‘appearance-based’ culture swapping out the great voiced little girl with the actress for a lip-synch because the real one wasn’t ‘cute enough?’ ugh.

    Seems like this USA-driven appearance slop is hitting emerging countries full force. Nothing to be proud of…We Americans should be ashamed of what we’re exporting with the Dove/Axe polarity.

  9. thanks !! very helpful post. This is probably one of the best mentions of this topic Ive seen in quite a while. Its obvious that your knowledge of the subject is deep and this made for a very interesting read. more please more please more please.

  10. For the record, I’m adding this new video/outreach by Sandra Rupp who gives huge kudos to Paul P. Pres. of Unilever for his sustainability living plan and contributions to Davos, MDG participation, etc.

    I’m not so generous on this, as toxic gender messaging and sexualization of women is part and parcel of a much bigger platform that has eroded young girls’ self-esteem for quite some time now, accelerating heavily in the last five years since we originally posted this.

    Sandra makes salient outreach to Unilever here in a kind, calm, courteous manner: http://youtu.be/gJLMej1kT-o whereas my words are not printable. My disdain for the Axe/Lynx ads that have seeped into the souls of young teens globally, repeatedly, leaves me gobsmacked that Unilever can continue to be heralded on a leadership pedestal pontificating while trashing psyches of girls and women under the guise of ‘satire’…Nope, I will not be flying the Unilever flag forward any time soon, nor will I buy their products.

    I DO love the Onslaught campaign for its impact…as I’ve written with ‘Dove Love’ here>> https://shapingyouth.org/dove%E2%80%99s-onslaught-media-messages-pummel-girls%E2%80%99-self-esteem/ but sadly, Unilever’s Axe/Lynx portrayal turns the effort into a ‘zero sum game’ negating the progress twofold. 🙁

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