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Barbara Lippert's Critique: Dove's Oscar Winner

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Just a few seconds ahead of the industry officially beating the trend into the ground, Dove ran its own user-generated commercial last night on the Academy Awards. After all, the setup was almost too perfect: the "real ads'' idea meshes big time with Dove's breakthrough, three-year-old "Real women'' campaign and, as the cliché goes, the Oscars are the Super Bowl for girls.

The contest was to create a spot promoting its new product, Cream Oil Body Wash. And even if you don't believe any of the "real" part of the brand's campaign, here the medium of consumer-generated ads matches the message of true beauty. Each attempts to strip away at least one layer of phony, and who can argue with that?

In soliciting user spots, the company set up dovecreamoil.com, a Web site offering basic video and music tools including lots of shots of water droplets and showerheads, the three different versions of the product, and soothing background music.

Dove got 1,200 entries. Not surprisingly, about 1,000 of them should have been titled "Showerhead Revisited.''

While reviewing tens of contenders (hundreds were posted on the site), the biggest surprise to me was how repetitive they got. Actually, after a while, even watching naked women talking in the shower can be boring.

Although consumers voted and posted rabid messages for their favorites, a secret panel of judges convened and selected the official three finalists. (The posters were not happy—they were expecting an American Idol-style popular winner, and apparently the finalists did not jibe with their selections. They made this clear. Here's something that's real: On the Internet, real women are fractious.)

The first of the three finalists was a 42-year-old ex-banker-turned-extreme sportswoman. She filmed herself skydiving. That's pretty amazing, and it's also remarkable that she got someone to document it. But the video looked amateurish and she talked so much about the product while falling from 17,000 feet up in the air that even the skydiving idea got really yawn inducing.

The other two finalists both used themselves in the aforementioned woman-in-a-shower scenario. (Each of those two spot makers has a classic user-generator profile: one is a 22-year-old TV production "assistant coordinator," the other is a 20-year old film student at Emerson College.) The student has a good back story—she found out about the contest three days before the deadline and worked for 72 hours to get it done. Although her idea was to go from black and white to color (because if we lived in black and white, we would not need moisturized skin, she explained), the finished product was serviceable but underwhelming. (Speaking of color, Dove has been so consistent, but effortless, about demonstrating diversity in its ads that it was disappointing that there was not a winner of color.)

Among these three, it was pretty obvious from the start that the first shower girl, Lindsay Miller, would win.

Ironically (or maybe not, as these contests go), her spot is the perfect synthesis of the brand ethos—it's as if it were in her DNA. Indeed, if the agency made a spot on a $200 (give or take) production budget, this would be it. Her tagline, "Knowing you're beautiful even when no one is looking,'' is deeply strategic. It feeds into the whole doing-it-for-yourself-not-worrying-who-approves sensibility that the Unilever brand has so carefully crafted since 2004.

The visuals are hardly startling (Lindsay singing and dancing in the shower), but it comes off as genuine and sweet. After offering a product pitch and talking about the shower as a "sanctuary,'' she says, "Let's be honest. Your shower is your contest hall, your sold-out auditorium," and we watch her mugging and singing using her hairbrush as a microphone. There's a delightful cut at the end of her feet doing a little happy dance—who doesn't secretly sing and dance in the shower?-- and she's open and unapologetic about her body. The final cuts show her with wet hair against a white background, smiling into the camera, looking 100 percent Dove-ish.

(Apparently, the network censors had no problem with bits of Lindsay's form being seen on national television, but they nixed similar shots of women over 50 proudly posing—but covering their private parts—for Dove's Pro-Age spots. Is over-50 flesh really that scary?)

Lindsay signs off with another of her inspired phrases, which seems too simple and stripped down, but connects: "Love, Dove."

I'm all for running user-generated spots as is, without the aid of major directors (that's the point, after all), but on its own, in the super-stylized Oscar showcase, the straight-out-of-YouTube quality of the video would probably have been a washout. That's why it was smart to put it into context with bumpers starring a beautifully lit, glammed-up Sara Ramirez, who plays the orthopedic surgeon on Grey's Anatomy, introducing the contest and the commercial, and coming back at the end for some final words.

Altogether, I give it three-and-a-half loofahs out of five. I guess it's a testament to how powerful the campaign has been in relaying its message so far. Though it came from the great consumer beyond, where ostensibly any idea can grow up and become a full-fledged commercial, it fits perhaps too neatly into the Dove canon.