Every now and then reading the marketing press you see a story and you think, surely the wider media has picked up on this. And apparently it hasn’t. In this case the story that caught my eye was: DOVE TO SHOWCASE EATING DISORDERS IN AD CAMPAIGN. “Dove…is set to cause controversy with its latest campaign to include recovering eating disorder sufferers.”

Dove’s “Real Beauty” ad campaigns since 2003 have helped turn the brand into a huge marketing success story – sales up 700%. The success has been attributed to its radical change of emphasis – advertising moving from trying to make women feel guilty about their physical imperfections towards a more celebratory tone. But is this actually Dove’s game?

At a marketing conference I went to this year, an interesting paper focused on the Dove campaign. The paper was about testing consumer ads, and involved videoing consumers watching two Dove ads, then asking them about the product and the campaign. The women interviewed were all very positive when they spoke about Dove, but frame-by-frame analysis of the videos showed flickers of disgust on their faces when they saw the various women on the ads showing their ‘saggy bums’, ‘fat tummies’, cellulite etc.

The presenter interpreted this as meaning that consumers actually don’t agree with Dove’s message, and that the brand is treading on dangerous ground – essentially, his interpretation is that the post-viewing interviews were lies, and the flickers of disgust are the truth. I thought at the time that he was wrong (and sales figures suggest that the message is doing something right).

My interpretation would be that the Real Beauty campaign isn’t about making women feel good about their natural beauty, as opposed to bad about their imperfections: if you’re naturally beautiful, why buy a firming cream? It’s about making women feel bad (or guilty) about feeling bad about themselves, and others. The assumed linkage – feel bad equals buy something – remains fully intact. The flickers of disgust are an anticipated and intended reaction: positive thoughts about Dove are a redemption of that reaction, not a contradiction of it – Dove becomes a virtuous buy because it occupies a higher moral ground than its consumer. (This is what most ethical brands do, obviously.)

Or that’s my theory of their theory, anyway. Whether I’m right or wrong, dropping the emotive bomb of using recovering eating disorder sufferers – presumably identifying as such, and talking about the disorders – is raising Dove’s stakes considerably. I don’t know what I think about it, and I don’t even feel qualified to think about it until the ads run (possibly not even then) – but professionally and personally this is shouting “BAD IDEA” at me quite loudly.