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
"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."
On the Net:
Dove Real Beauty: http://www.dove.com/real--beauty/default.asp
The spot: In print ads and on billboards, various "real women" -- stripped down to their plain white undies -- gleefully show us their "real curves." This campaign for Dove's new line of firming products (lotions and creams and such) is everywhere you look in the United States. The ads made their debut in last month's fashion magazines and they now grace every outdoor surface in sight. Buses, bus stops, billboards, buildings -- I can't walk three blocks in my D.C. neighborhood without encountering another of these Brobdingnagian babes.
There's no doubt that the ads are striking. This is, of course, entirely a function of the casting choices. If the wardrobe, lighting, and graphic design remained the same but these ads featured gorgeous, size-zero models, no one would give this campaign a moment's thought.
But these are not models. These women have paunches. And asses. And are not pouting. Dove says these ladies range from size 4 to size 12 (it's not tough to tell which is which), and were discovered all over the United States. One was working at the Gap, another was a student, a third was a barista.
When I first saw one of these smiley, husky gals on the side of a building, my brain hiccupped. Something seemed out of place. Here I was, staring at a "big-boned" woman in her underwear, but this wasn't an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn't supposed to laugh at her. It felt almost revolutionary.
Indeed, Dove has portrayed its "Campaign for Real Beauty" as a progressive, humanitarian mission. The Dove press release plays up stark statistics on body image and the media: "Models weigh an average of 23% less than the average woman. Twenty years ago, models weighed an average of 8% less." There's a Dove Web site that features "beauty discussion boards," where women from around the world can whine about their thighs. (Frankly, I was terrified to read those boards, but I finally took a peek. Indicative post: "You go, Dove!") The site also has a link where you can donate money to Dove's "self-esteem fund" for young girls.
If the women in these ads lacked self-esteem, they wouldn't be up on a billboard in their skivvies. Hey, good for them. I even have a favorite Dove chick: Stacy (the student). She's the one who poses with her backside to the camera, showing off her ample bottom. I see Stacy every day -- she's on the bus stop shelter next to my house. "Check out this fiiiiiiiine badonkadonk," she seems to say to me, grinning slyly over her shoulder. I think I may have a crush on her. But I've said too much already.
The interesting thing here is the risky bet Dove is making. Beauty-product marketing has almost always been aspirational: I wish I could look like her ... perhaps if I buy this lip gloss, I will! But Dove takes a wildly different approach: That chick in the ad sort of looks like me, and yet she seems really happy and confident ... perhaps if I buy this Dove Firming Cream, I'll stop hating myself.
In part, Dove's strategy is not unlike the Body Shop's old eco- and animal-friendly stance: Buy our products because you like them, but also because you're making a righteous statement. To buy Dove is to cast a vote for more "real curves" in advertising.
But there's a dirty little secret here. Because, in the end, you simply can't sell a beauty product without somehow playing on women's insecurities. If women thought they looked perfect -- just the way they are -- why would they buy anything?
These Dove ads say it's cool to be round and hefty ... so long as your skin is taut and firm and perfect. (And, in case you're curious, Dove says these photos were not retouched at all.) But what's that, you say? You love your real curves, but you've got a little cellulite? Girl, run out and buy our hocus-pocus cream right now! Those cottage cheese thighs are vile! Dear God, cover them up!
In the short-term, these ads gets a grade of A. They are real attention getters -- everyone's talking about them. On that level, they're a smashing success. Also, Dove now owns the "friend of the everywoman" angle. Smart move on their part to spot this open niche and grab it. Finally, if I can get sappy for a moment, it is sort of nice to see the unperfect have their day in the sun.
In the long-term, however, the grade is D. Sadly, this is not a winning play for the long haul. If Dove keeps running ads like this, women will get bored with the feel-good, politically correct message. Eventually (though perhaps only subconsciously), they'll come to think of Dove as the brand for fat girls. Talk about "real beauty" all you want -- once you're the brand for fat girls, you're toast.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate.