Fab or Flab

updated 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

No denying it: They're big—much larger than life on some billboards— and they're in their underwear. Still up for debate, though, is whether the six skivvied women in Dove's ubiquitous ads are the best thing to happen to advertising since the free sample, or an eyesore of outsize proportions. When Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper made his vote clear ("If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I'll go to Taste of Chicago, OK?" he wrote on July 19, referring to a summer food festival), nearly 1,000 readers let him have it. "You're an idiot," wrote one, who signed herself "a size 6 who hates Neanderthal men like you." Says Roeper now: "I had no idea this was going to draw this level of anger. It was enlightening."

But no surprise to those at the agency behind the ad. "This one has really hit a nerve," says Maureen Shirreff of Ogilvy & Mather, which came up with the campaign (running in PEOPLE and other national magazines) for Dove Firming products. Recruited in open calls in four cities, the "Dove girls" had no prior modeling experience and ranged in dress size from 6 to 12 (hardly chubby; the average American woman is size 14). "The stereo-type was that only thin, young, blonde was beautiful," says Dove marketing director Philippe Harousseau. "It's our mission to challenge those stereotypes."

And, oh yes, to sell its product—the nature of which has drawn fire as well. "This [ad campaign] is telling women they should feel good about themselves—but not so good that they don't need cellulite cream," says Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, an advocacy group in New York. (Shirreff says the product is merely intended to give skin a firmer appearance, not to cure cellulite.)

Bottom line: Has the pitch worked? While Dove would not disclose sales figures, Harousseau says, "We've exceeded all our expectations." Whether any ad can change society's perception of what's beautiful is another question. Annepely Dakay, 36, a stay-home mom from Flower Mound, Texas, calls the campaign "refreshing," but she's sticking with another beauty ideal. "After having 10 kids, my grandmother was chubby and squat," Dakay says. "I have her picture in my study as a reminder of her strength of spirit. I don't think the Dove ads could give that. But it's a start."

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