It began with six ballsy women in their undies baring their imperfections with fizzing confidence and it grew into one of the most famous, successful and culturally significant ad campaigns in the world. But last week Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" was accused of being a fake.
An article published in America suggested that Dove might not be quite as keen on real bodies– at least in its advertising – as it claims.
According to a piece in last week's New Yorker, the airbrush artist Pascal Dangin reckoned he had done some extensive retouching on the Campaign for Real Beauty pictures and the whole Dove philosophy suddenly looked as wobbly as a buttock full of cellulite. "Do you know how much retouching was on that?", Dangin told the US magazine. "But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone's skin and faces showing mileage but not looking unattractive."
It took a day or two before Unilever got its act togather to respond, and by the time the corporate denial was issued, an awful lot of PR damage had been done. When it finally came, the Unilever statement insisted that the Real Beauty pics had not been airburshed, simply cleaned of dust from the film and then colour corrected. And Dangin did some furious backtracking, too, insisting that his comments had been taken out of context by the New Yorker.
In trying to calm the story, though, it didn't help that Unilever had previously taken a major shot at its beauty industry rivals for their addiction to airbrushing. Remember the award-winning "Evolution" film that showed a rather dowdy woman being made up and retouched into an icon of unattainable perfection? "No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted," it said. Evolution has been seen by about 300 million people, according to the agency that made it, Ogilvy. As an exercise in an ad campaign that actually campaigns, there is none better.
Now, even though Unilever has denied retouching its Real Beauty women, the simmering cynicism about the company's incosistent attitude to women has been reheated. Unilever also makes Lynx, whose ads portray women as the objects of male fantasy: pertly cleavaged, high-buttocked, desperate for a man. Can Dove woman and Lynx man happily coexist? Because of the confusion, the Campaign for Real Beauty has been undermined.
But it is not only Unilever that will suffer from the backlash. The whole issue is really much deeper than Dove, Unilever or the entire beauty industry. It hits at the core of our deep-seated scepticism about all advertising. True or not, the Unilever airbrushing farrago could damage the whole ad industry by reinforcing all our prejudices about the veracity of the medium.
HG Wells once described advertising as "legalised lying" and, despite the best efforts of the regulators, sometimes it is. But very rarely. Exaggerating, fudging, obscuring might be more commonplace, but lying is really extremely rare.
Most British advertising is legal and decent and true. Honestly. And if it is not, the Advertising Standards Authority will ban it. But there is no doubt that some advertisers will push the rules to their limit.
If even those advertisers like Unilever that make a determined point about truthful advertising can't be trusted, what on earth should we make of the rest of the work out there?
Show some respect, Boris! Not all ads are bad
Now that Boris Johnson has come to power in London, ad agencies that have enjoyed projects from the Greater London Authority are wondering whether their services will still be required under the mayor's new regime.
The GLA says there are no plans to hold any advertising reviews just yet, but there are already indications that Johnson might not be so advertising-happy as his predecessor.
Faced with a choice of funding more police officers on the streets or buying more advertising, Johnson seems to favour the former. The estimated £16.5m cost of his policy of more officers patrolling Tube stations and buses will steal money from the Transport for London and Metropolitan Police ad budgets.
The Tories have made a habit of complaining about the use of taxpayers' money to promote government policy, so Johnson's knee-jerk is not so surprising. And it is quite hard to argue with. But he would be wise to consider the effectiveness of some of the GLA's campaigns before he raids the advertising coffers further.
Driver awareness campaigns for TfL, anti-gun campaigns for the police's Trident initiative – ad campaigns such as these have been meticulously researched, planned and executed and, as a consequence, they have made a real impact on their respective targets, with proven results. What is more, they have been seen by an awful lot more people than the extra officers spread across the sprawling transport system will be.
As Johnson surveys his budgets, he should remember that advertising is not a dispensable item. But at least his "more bobbies" policy suggests that he's mastered the powerful art of public relations.
No ifs, and certainly no butts
If you are a smoker you will have noticed the Adbins that are popping up outside businesses to help them avoid fines of up to £2,500 for cigarette litter. The Adbins are for all those fag butts and, as you might expect in a society where very little escapes commercial exploitation, the bins carry advertising.
Now Saatchi & Saatchi has leapt upon the Adbin medium for its client Quit, the stop-smoking charity. What better place to post an anti-smoking message than at point-of-disposal? The ad shows a set of lungs, transparent in the middle so that you can see all the discarded cigarette ends inside the bin. Quite disgusting, and guaranteed to take the edge off smoking in the sunshine.
* Do you turn the volume down when the ads come on? You're not imagining it: TV ads are often louder than the programmes. MUCH LOUDER.
The Committee of Advertising Practice, which looks into these things, says it is not just a cunning little trick employed by advertisers to catch our attention, but is a result of the compression of audio files. Either way, it is useful for advertisers keen to make their ad stand out. And it has been irritating viewers for years.
Now the practice is to be outlawed. From July, the CAP will introduces rules insisting that the "maximum loudness of advertisements must be consistent ... with the loudness of programmes". Perhaps the committee could consider new rules on minimum advertising quality thresholds as well.
The author is editor of 'Campaign'Reuse content