A modern soap opera

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The Independent Online

"But they won't go for it," says Dominic, aged 21, MA (Oxon), new to the Dove team. "We'll never get away with it. You can't tell people age is beautiful and fat is fun. Look at these figures: 97 per cent of girls between eight and 13 think women can't be old and beautiful and 73 per cent believe that beauty means slim."

Picture the scene at Ogilvy's ad agency. I worked there once in the days when I was young and beautiful. If you weren't young and beautiful, you didn't last long. Age started at about 35. No reason to think anything has changed. Except the consumers - who these days watch the television commercials but can't remember them, let alone the product name. So the clients are getting tetchy and the ad world's getting desperate. They're working on a Unilever account, Dove - a soap bar. Unilever is one of the top 10 global consumer product companies. Its mission is to "add vitality to life". To this end, it makes everything from Cif to Sunsilk to Slim-Fast by way of Captain Birds Eye. A huge account, spread out amongst various agencies. "Pre-teens are not our market," says Marcia, 31, BA (Keele, philosophy) dismissing his naivety. "We're after the older woman. Everyone grows old and we want them to do it happily. That's why we're using Irene." There's a feel-good murmur around the room. They're lounging in chairs; fashionable, attractive limbs all over the place. They all had sex last night, one way or another. Only Dominic looks doubtful. (These characters of mine are entirely fictional, even though symptomatic. Any resemblance, etc, etc.)

"You can't take a 96-year-old woman out of a retirement home in North London and tell them she's beautiful," Dominic protests. "It just won't run. She may be attractive and interesting,and she deserves respect, but age is age and the body wears out. Age is smelly and incontinent."

Marcia: "We're talking beauty of spirit here. That's what the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is all about."

Dominic: "Yes, but actually what we're selling is product."

Marcia: "But by way of beauty of spirit. Isn't this a noble aim?"

Dominic: "No. It's grossly cynical." Dominic should watch out; he'll be out on his ear soon.

Alistair, group head, 33, interjects. "Dominic, our aim here is to attach our advertising to a social issue. We don't do dreams any more, we do f****** reality. Research shows growing non-response to pin-thin young models. We're in a tough market. We need an ambitious, radical approach all over the beauty product range. Most consumers, let's face it, are dogs. The average British size is a f****** 18. So, we're doing character, not looks, associating the product with likeability. Okay? Understood? Everyone wants to be likeable. Let's take that on board. Run it up the f****** flagpole; see who salutes." He's a Glaswegian. He majored in brute speaking in the university of life.

"It worked in the States," puts in Estuary Keith, 24, BA (University of East London, media studies). "We want ordinary women to buy our products, so why not get ordinary women to advertise them? Our own 96-year-old featured in a 96ft tall poster in Times Square and glorified the older woman. A foot for every year. 'Wrinkled or Wonderful?', asked the tick boxes. Eight out of 10 said wonderful. Dove sales in the US exploded."

Dominic: "But age is not beautiful and I don't think you can persuade the public otherwise. And I'm not sure you should."

Marcia: "You're out of touch with the mood of the times. Why not be life-enhancing, hopeful? Why not change society, or try to? Advertisers get enough stick as it is. One in four teenage girls in the UK are anorexic. Let's undo some of the harm we are alleged to have done. Not that we did, of course. Advertising is a symptom of the surplus society, not the disease. But let's find the cure."

Dominic: "The bigger the lie the better it works? That's what Hitler said."

Estuary Keith: "We can learn from the Dirt is Good Omo campaign in Turkey [Omo's a sister product]. A powerful, engaging message about the necessity of dirt in our lives and the freedom we allow ourselves and others to experience life and grow. Unilever shares are shaky - so let's get on to it, team."

But Dominic is leaving. "So where are you going, Dominic?" asks Alistair. "Off to join f****** Benetton?" But he's gone.

Fay Weldon's new novel 'Mantrapped' is published by Fourth Estate at £16.99; the BBC version of 'The Life and Loves of a She-Devil' is available on DVD at £19.99, published by Network.