How Dove Is ‘Hacking’ Photography to Change the Way Advertising Depicts Women

Gaming the system from within

Headshot of Angela Natividad

In college, we were charged with digging through magazines to find ads that depicted either minorities or women in a non-stereotypical (read: not sexy or homemaking) way. It was hard. For every 20 ads with an impossibly contorted white woman, we found maybe one with a minority—never mind a woman looking empowered, or even doing something normal like reading a newspaper … or welding, Flashdance-style.
At the time, we were told this isn’t the industry’s fault; it’s drawing from what the market wants. The subtext was that if we wanted to change norms in advertising, we’d have to change ourselves first.
On some level, this is true. But anyone who actually works in advertising recognizes that our relationship with society is more symbiotic than that. If we always waited for people to be ready, or tell us what they wanted, we’d never have gotten smartphones.
And there are costs to the norms we help perpetuate, both social and economic. Per Dove’s Global Beauty and Confidence Report from 2016, 68 percent of women can’t identify with the images they see in ads. This doesn’t just affect how women see themselves; it hurts margins, too.
Mindshare in Denmark wanted to do something about this. The result is “Image_Hack,” a Dove-branded effort to take the industry on through a common tool—Shutterstock.
After observing terms like “beautiful woman” and “real woman” mostly yield the same ol’ same, “we collaborated with some of the biggest photographers in the industry and took pictures of strong, independent and original women in non-stereotypical settings,” Mindshare creative director Kenneth Kaadtmann told AdFreak.
“The pictures were uploaded to stock sites and tagged to alter [their] algorithms, giving anyone who searches the site a realistic picture of women in today’s society. Then we encouraged agencies and advertisers to use these images to portray women equally in their ads.”

“The inspiration came out of a search on a stock site, where we had to browse through several pages until we found an image that was actually not in some way offensive,” Kaadtmann goes on. “That led to the question, ‘What if we could hack this site?’ which led to ‘What if we could hack this site, legally?’ That was how the idea was born.”
In the video, the agency claims it used a “back door” to upload and tag thousands of photos, but let’s get down to brass tacks—you don’t really need to “hack” Shutterstock to upload anything. It’s easy to become a contributor, and it’s in the site’s interest to let as many photographers as possible build out its database.
Kaatdtmann alludes to this when he talks about the idea of “legal” hacking, which for many might sound like an oxymoron. Still, the use of “hack” applies—just not for Shutterstock. As the narrator explains, “By hacking the industry from the inside, we can hack women’s self-image.”
First, though, it “hacked” agencies and brands.
“We narrowed it down to two target groups—advertisers and advertising/media agencies,” Kaatdmann says. “One group we needed to inspire to brief differently, and one group we need to inspire to recommend differently.”
The images were uploaded onto Shutterstock around Jan. 18. The site,, went live in February. And on March 8, International Women’s Day, a series of outdoor ads appeared outside major agencies in Denmark, encouraging them to use these new images and jump aboard the transformation train.

“Whether we accomplished the mission, only the future will tell. We can tell you that we do get a lot of downloads and can only assume that a lot of brands are using some of these pictures,” says Kaatdmann.
Specifically, 1,729 images have been downloaded, per the video, which was published a week ago. Advertisers and agencies from all over Denmark scooped the photos up and used them in their own advertising—42 brands in all, including Ford, Frisko, GFB Pension, Panorm and IT firm any.mac.

Join the foremost brand marketers, such as Marc Pritchard, Brad Hiranaga, Kory Marchisotto and more, for Brandweek Masters Live on Sept. 14-17. Secure your pass and learn from the brand masters.

@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.