Gina Crisanti was taking out the trash at work one day when a stranger approached her with an odd request. It was a talent scout who wanted her to try out for an ad campaign to sell Dove beauty products — wearing nothing but her underwear.
The offer was puzzling to say the least. Crisanti has never thought of herself as anywhere near super model stature — curvy and closer to five feet than six.
But that, it turns out, is the point. Crisanti and five other "real" women — ranging from size 6 to 14 — are the stars of a Dove ad campaign that shows them wearing only bras, panties and big smiles on billboards, bus stops and trains in Chicago, New York, and other big cities.
"It is our belief that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes and ages," said Philippe Harousseau, Dove's marketing director on the "Campaign for Real Beauty." "Our mission is to make more women feel beautiful every day by broadening the definition of beauty."
The ads, the second phase of a campaign launched last September for Unilever's Dove, have served as a source of both inspiration and ridicule.
The ads are designed to sell products from Dove's firming collection — lotions and creams meant to reduce the appearance of cellulite with slogans like, "Let's face it, firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge."
Some find it strange that the ads aim to profit from improving the same curves the campaign celebrates, but Crisanti and others involved with the campaign say they are hearing from women — and some men — who are huge fans.
"We've had some girls who've written in saying they are struggling with anorexia and they say they keep a picture of us on the refrigerator (as a reminder) that these girls are normal and beautiful and they can be normal and beautiful," Crisanti said.
The ads can be a touchy subject — as witnessed by a Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper after he characterized the women as "chunky." He was bombarded with hate mail from about a thousand readers. Some called Roeper an "idiot," "Neanderthal," and "sexist loser" — quotes he included in a follow-up column explaining his original comments.
Rebecca Traister's reaction to the campaign was sharper than Roeper's: "Yes, when I think of putting beauty in perspective for girls, mostly I think of suggesting that they shell out for three separately sold products that will temporarily make it appear that they have less cellulite," she wrote sarcastically in her Salon.com column.
Deb Boyda, managing partner at Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago — the ad agency running the current campaign — dismisses the criticism.
"We are telling them we want them to take care of themselves, take care of their beauty," she said. "That's very different from sending them the message to look like something they're not."
While it isn't the first time that curvy women have been depicted in ads, the campaign has caught the attention of counselors and social workers who deal with eating disorders and other body-image issues, along with those in the business of selling products.
"Competitors will watch very carefully to see if they did tap into something," said Tom Collinger, a professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University.
In Chicago, woman after woman passing by a huge Dove billboard said they think the company has done just that.
"Most girls don't have that type of body (of a model) and they know they won't get to that," said Gaby Hurtado, 22. "But seeing this they say, 'I can do that.'"
Boyda said besides women, dads of daughters also have offered praise for the ads.
"They can imagine a day when their daughter has to look in the mirror and say, 'You know, I have big thighs and I am not beautiful any more,'" said Boyda, whose agency is a subsidiary of WPP Group PLC.
The women in the ads include a manicurist, kindergarten teacher, two students and an administrative assistant, and were recruited by scouts and paid for their time away from their regular jobs. Their ages range from 20 to 26.
For Crisanti, her role as billboard model is part of a transformation from her younger years when she had low self-esteem.
"I grew up not being happy with my body shape and size at all. I hated being curvy. I hated having big breasts. And I hated having curly hair," Crisanti said. "In my 20s, I realized all those (ideas) were simply self-destructive. Once I started to develop an alternative definition of beauty, all of it started to fall into place. It's all about how you shine."