Today, after 10+ years of relentless ads, Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” was named #1 in the Advertising Age list of top ad campaigns of the 21st century for its mission to, according to the magazine, “change societal notions about beauty.” Sorry, but I find that totally lame. I’m also totally sick of hearing about this campaign. Of all the ad campaigns in the world, this one is the best? I think the campaign was thought up with positive intentions, and it definitely launched an important cultural conversation about societal norms – but changing norms? I’m not so sold on that one. Dove’s campaign does nothing to challenge the popular notion that beauty should be the most important thing in a woman’s life. It doesn’t aim to stop us from obsessing over looks, it just reframes the conversation about image to a supposedly more positive one. I hesitate to cut down any campaign that gets people thinking about what a monster the media body image machine is, and Dove has surely done some real good by encouraging self-acceptance. That said, it’s important to consider the problematic messages in Dove’s campaign and acknowledge it as a solid first step on a path to more ethical advertising rather than the authority on the subject.
1. The campaign exists first and foremost to sell products. Dove didn’t launch it solely out of the goodness of their hearts. The ads’ creators may genuinely want you to feel good about yourself when you watch them, but they also still fully intend to use them to work advertising magic to convince you that you won’t look your best without their product. Isn’t there something a bit hypocritical about a company telling you that your product-free natural looks are perfect as they are just before insisting you buy their products?
2. It presents beauty as the ultimate measure of a woman’s worth and promotes the (Western) cultural standards it claims to oppose. Instead of telling ad viewers that beauty is one of the less important aspects of the many interesting traits that make up a human being, the campaign insists that beauty is essential, but that it’s okay to value it so highly because everyone is beautiful. In many of its ads, though, Dove contradicts this idea by maintaining that there is absolutely such a thing as being more or less pretty based on cultural standards. A good example of this is Dove’s infamous “Sketches” ad, in which (mostly thin, white) women describe their faces to a forensic artist and discover that they picture themselves as much less attractive than they actually are. When they see the sketches based on their descriptions of themselves compared to their (much prettier) actual faces, most of them burst into tears and have a moment of lady empowerment – because their real faces are so much more attractive than the uggos in the self-described sketches, and Thank God they aren’t the uggos they thought they were! How, exactly, is a viewer with features similar to the “uglier” sketches supposed to feel about this? The sketch artist suggests that the women are more beautiful than they think, and they are – if they’re being gauged by the narrow category of Western societal standards that very few people fit within. So instead of taking a positive message from the ad like “you’re a great person regardless of how you look” or “all types of features can look great” viewers are taught “you’re not nearly as ugly as a real ugly person, so you’re not worthless after all” which, thanks Dove! Good to know I’m probably not as fugly as I think!
Even more wayward was the campaign’s start in the early 2000s as billboards in London and Canada. The billboards featured women’s photos and two adjectives with check boxes next to them, imploring viewers to consider which of the two words described the woman. The first descriptor was a word that glaringly pointed out what I guess was supposed to be the model’s utter personal failing of not meeting Western beauty standards, and the second descriptor was a compliment that was meant to serve as the positive angle of that perceived “flaw.” We were presented with phrases like: ”Fat or fit?” “Wrinkled or wonderful?” “Freckled or flawless?” One particularly egregious one featured an Asian woman and read, “Single eyelids or twice as nice?” Are you fucking kidding me?
First off, the ads establish that each of these women have supposed physical flaws, which viewers of the billboards may not have even noticed or considered to be negative features – including viewers who share those same features and who never thought once to consider themselves unattractive. Then, they draw glaring attention to the flaws as if those flaws put the models in a niche “not conventionally attractive” category, because hell, in Dove’s eyes, we can’t even glance at them once without a negative descriptor popping into our heads right away! Then, after establishing what losers these women might be considered, Dove gives them a patronizing “go girl!” instead of treating them like an actual human being who doesn’t require a qualifier to have their picture plastered on an ad. And then the company expects a headpat for it.
What if a woman is wrinkled and wonderful or freckled and flawless? Does she count as beautiful by Dove’s standards? Why are objective descriptors of a person’s appearance framed as insults? Since when are freckles and wrinkles flaws?
3. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, owns a whole lot of brands built on physical insecurities. Unilever owns Axe body spray (which has extremely shallow, sexist ads) and Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream that perpetuates racist beauty standards. Up until last year, the company also owned Slim-Fast. Basically, Dove’s parent company is responsible for the exact type of media body shaming that the campaign claims to be fighting back against.
[Image via Dove]