Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In Defence of Dove

You might have noticed there has been a lot of discussion all over the internet about Dove's latest "natural beauty" campaign. In case you've missed it, here is the video that everyone has been talking about.

I've seen a lot of quite justified criticism of this campaign around - first and foremost is the point that Dove is owned by Unilever who own...well, just about everything. But in particular, they own Lynx/Axe, who's marketing campaigns are about as diametrically opposite Dove's as is possible. For all their talk about "natural" beauty in the Dove campaigns, Unilever also own Ponds, who are well known for shilling whitening cream in markets like India, promising wealth and happiness if you can make your natural skin look more Western. Nestled under the same corporate umbrella we also have Weight Watchers, and frankly my problems with THAT company could fill an entire article on its own. The point is that Dove keep some very suspect corporate company, and a lot of people have been rightfully pointing this out.

To my mind however, corporate hypocrisy is nothing surprising - and more to the point, I don't think it's particularly relevant to discussion of this particular campaign. All the brands under the Unilever umbrella will have their own, independent marketing teams. They don't get together and discuss overarching sociological messages that Unilever are sending out. Every department will be putting together campaigns based on what they think will make people buy the product they are selling. It's really as simple as that - Dove only cares about your self esteem if you feeling good about yourself makes you buy more soap.

While I think the revelation that a corporation the size of Unilever owns all sorts of conflicting products is no revelation at all, I do think the fact this campaign was funded by a big corporation IS interesting. Unilever have little to no track record of attempting to market to women by making them feel good about themselves. Even the "natural beauty" campaign for Dove has been pretty patchy in its very short lifespan. For every pictorial featuring non typical (but still quite aesthetically pleasing) models, there has been ads telling us our underarms aren't beautiful enough. There has always been the underlying (and sometimes blatant) message that the women shown in the previous ads were only naturally beautiful because they use Dove products, which is a hell of a caveat. Anyone can be beautiful - IF you use our products. I didn't see any of that in this video though, and I think that marks a radical departure that has been largely overlooked. The idea of selling things to women by making them feel good about themselves is a revolutionary one. For the entire history of advertising, the overwhelming majority of ads pitched at women have been designed to make us feel bad about ourselves in order to sell us things.

You're too skinny! Our product will fix that!
You're too smelly! Our product will fix that.
I find it really fascinating that someone in the Dove marketing department has decided to try something so different. I for one am encouraged that the conversation about female self esteem is finally loud enough to permeate the marketing world bubble. It's a sign that what we're saying is being heard - Dove wouldn't use this issue if they didn't think it was something consumers cared about. Yes, it's true that the perception of beauty they are selling is still very narrow compared to the actual spectrum of beauty out there. But it's still wider than it could be. It's a start, a tiny baby step in a more positive direction. Yes, they are absolutely cashing in on the conversation about women's self esteem to sell soap - but that's the marketing department's job. There are plenty of advertisers happy to continue to prey on women's perception that they aren't good enough, and it still works. But I think this video is an encouraging indicator of where advertising could go. While we are still a capitalist society, companies will always be trying to sell us things, and I would much rather they used campaigns like this, as imperfect as it is, than campaigns like the one below.

Image courtesy of Dr. Nerdlove
The other criticism I've seen leveled at this campaign is that it encourages women to value being beautiful above all other things. On the surface, I do agree with this criticism. It's certainly true that women should feel they have value for things other than being ornamental, and I strongly support the idea of making women aware that being attractive isn't all they have to offer. However, I don't know about you but I know that while I'm aware I'm smart, and witty (on the internet) and an excellent problem solver, I also still value feeling beautiful. It's not the ONLY thing I value, but it is important to me. To suggest that women SHOULDN'T care about being beautiful is all very well and good, but the fact is that a lot of women DO care. I, for one, can't help it. I like feeling pretty, and when I feel pretty it makes me feel good about myself. It's not the ONLY thing that makes me feel good about myself, but it's certainly a factor. I suppose being invested in my attractiveness isn't the most enlightened or academic stance, but that's just how it is for me.

If we can't totally erase women's invested interest in feeling beautiful (and I don't think we can or should) I think encouraging women to examine the way they see themselves, and understand that their internal image is almost certainly not how they look objectively is a really positive thing. I think it encourages more women to try this Jedi mind trick where we attempt to genuinely see ourselves from the outside, because in my experience it can be absolutely revolutionary for your self esteem. The Boy and I have occasionally played a game where I point out a random stranger that I think is the same shape as me, and then he says whether he agrees or disagrees, before pointing out one that looks like me through his eyes. The strangers we choose are always WILDLY different, and while a lot of this can be accounted for by the fact The Boy is dreadful at eyeballing sizes, it certainly shows that my perception of myself is also very suspect.

I also think that while women SHOULDN'T be getting this message from a company trying to sell them soap, the fact is that this campaign will reach people that The Female Eunuch won't. It's true that there is a ton of amazing, insightful writing on this subject out there, from an amazing array of brilliant writers.  But not everyone who could benefit from it is going to read it - not because it's not any good, or because it's not important, or because these women are less intelligent, but because it can be simply too hard at the end of the day. I have a bunch of really great books on my shelf that I really should get around to reading, but I don't see it happening any time soon, because I come home from work too exhausted for anything heavy. And that's just from full time work and blogging in between! While reading up on feminist literature can be really enlightening, I can imagine that if I added kids or someone I was caring for into that equation, I would reject pretty much anything over a paragraph with a resounding "Fuck all of this." This video is a direct, simple way of saying to female viewers, "Hey, just take a minute to consider that your internal image might not be accurate." This can be enough to really shake someone's perception of themselves - I saw a touching piece here about how this ad reduced the author to tears, with this simple message.

I don't think that kind of positive impact can be erased by the shady dealings of the corporation behind it, or the fact that it is essentially an ad for soap and skin care products. While it's not perfect, and there are certainly problems that should be pointed out, I also think that a lot of the criticism against this ad is coming from an academic high horse. Women shouldn't value themselves according to how beautiful they perceive themselves to be - but they often do. Women shouldn't be getting their feminist dialogue from a company selling skin cream - but some of them do. And if this ad makes women happier with themselves, then hell, I think it's worth supporting.


  1. Dove has form with this kind of everyone-is-beautiful-we-really-care-about-women sentimentality, as we saw with their viral campaigns in the mid to late 2000s, cynically hitching their product onto the coat-tails of a movement born out of anger at the way Dove's own industry operates.

    They create a dichotomy between 'bad' companies and 'good' companies and, as you've already mentioned by citing other Unilever products, disingenuously place themselves in the latter category.

    The ad people behind this campaign took a calculated risk in differentiating themselves from their competition in this way - by using more representative women in their campaigns and focusing on 'issues' and 'awareness' rather than a particular product itself. It's paid off big time. Unilever has cultivated brand loyalty by convincing thousands of women they're our BFFs in feminism.

    Yes, on the one level, this video is as you say, a direct and simple way of saying to female viewers, "Hey, just take a minute to consider that your internal image might not be accurate," but that's just the bait. More insidiously, it is a direct and simple way of saying to women, "It's the other brands that make you feel like this. We're not like them. Give us your money in exchange for our products and stay loyal to us because we DON'T HATE YOU."

    This video unpicks some of what Unilever/Dove has done in the past. If you can withstand Wil Anderson being obnoxious, it is quite enlightening. Especially the bit about downward comparison.


    We are still being manipulated.

    1. Surely all advertising is an attempt to manipulate us and to create sympathy/admiration/loyalty to your brand.

      If we understand this, then is it so bad when a campaign tries to create this brand image through increasing the self-esteem of their audience, rather than putting it down.

      I found the video a bit too reality-tv to appeal to me, but I do like the idea of reinventing beauty advertising to be more in line with my own values, rather than trying to trick me into thinking I'm ugly.

    2. I think that the most interesting, and heartening, way to read this campaign is as a symptom of the state of the discourse.
      Marketing is, at least in part, about telling people what they already believe, and in that sense will be highly reactive to shifts in the discourse and in consciousness. In a society where the majority of women dislike their appearance, ads tell women that they look bad. I think that it's heartening to see that a company, who have doubtless done an enormous amount of market research before embarking on this campaign, have come to the conclusion that enough women think well of themselves to react positively to this sort of stunt. The fact that it's a calculated thing isn't that revelatory, but I think that the calculations that it reveals is.

    3. I agree that the brand management team at Dove has identified a shift in discourse and it's a positive indication of its strength that any company should seek to cash in on it at all. Focusing on discursive change, that is the heartening outlook.

      Dove has learned that people will spend money more consistently and more loyally out of a desire to feel good and supported rather than a desire to not feel awful. Fighting against and refusing to submit to socially and culturally-enforced feelings of awfulness are important parts of feminism, so as far as that particular element is concerned, Dove is communicating a decent message.

      But that shouldn't be interpreted as meaning they're not just giving me a smaller hammer to hit myself over the head with instead of that chunky mallet over there, sold by Avon and the rest.

      You're right that this is a symptom of a changing discourse. It's being discussed so vigorously that it's become part of the thing it was reflecting. I think that's what bugs me, because it's co-opting that movement to sell shit. If this were a film in an art gallery, I'd be all over it, but it isn't and I don't like how the ad seeks to blur those lines, getting the message in our heads and sneaking the product into our hearts while we're distracted by feeling nice about ourselves for once.

    4. I can understand that. Kind of a wolf in sheep's clothing thing.
      I guess I just rather beauty marketers at least pretended they understood feminism. Rather than pretending it's a passing fad that they don't need to address.

      (also lol mallets)

    5. I guess that that doesn't bother me as much - and I'm very aware that I'm a guy, BTW, and that these things don't impact me as directly as it does female viewers - because that's never going to change. Marketing teams will always try to sell things. They can do that by trying to make people feel bad about themselves or by making them feel good, and I'm really pleased to see them trying the latter for once. It's how they've always marketed to men, after all.

  2. The dove ad reminded me of your article on how a lot of women focus on specific parts of their body to hate on. I don't mind Dove using positive body image to advertise their product. It's better than the alternative.

    1. The list of things to be unhappy with is apparently never ending! I always use my boy as a touchstone for whether anyone else would actually notice the "problem" a product is allegedly going to solve eg. I say, "Baby, have you ever noticed the way fat sometimes rolls over a girl's bra strap on her back?" He looks at me baffled and says,"Uh....no. Is that a thing that happens?" And then I know I don't need the back smoothing bra I was considering.

  3. Whether or not the Dove ad is used to sell soap or is sapping our souls, I think the marketing team deserves a round of applause. To be honest, I'm more interested in the ad itself and the process they used than the intent behind it. I like the idea of using an FBI artist-- someone who has more experience at drawing others accurately than the average person. I like that t wasn't just about physical beauty: they talked about the idea of projecting a persona relative to your self-image. It's true-- you can easily identify people's self-confidence seeing them on the street. That, to me, is the more important message: give yourself the credit you deserve and project confidence rather than sadness and self-doubt.
    And at the end of the day, I would much rather watch Dove's ad than some stupid promo about sex, violence or twig-thin models.

    1. "And at the end of the day, I would much rather watch Dove's ad than some stupid promo about sex, violence or twig-thin models."

      I think that's what it really comes down to in the end - it's a pleasant change from some truly horrible peer advertisements. Ads will always be ads - they are always trying to manipulate you into buying something. But at least this is, as The Thing put it, using a small mallet instead of a large one.

  4. I think the biggest problem with the campaign is the inherent sizeism, and the fact that non-Caucasian women were once again relegated to being in the background. Some of the women spoke about not being as "fat" as they perceived themselves to be. In other words, it's okay to like yourself as long as you're not actually fat.
    I agree that the Dove ads are less offensive by far over all than something such as the Dolce and Gabana ad that you showed, or than the Axe ads...by Unilever.
    In the end, it's all just a bunch of soft soap and its a slippery slope.

    1. You're very right to call out both these aspects - I came across the casting call for one of their previous "natural" campaigns that called for women who were "curvy, but not fat. Fit, no tattoos". Hardly what you would call a representative sample. As I said in the post, it's far from perfect and there are some things about it I hope they will be willing to address in their next campaign. But when the main competitors use models who are deliberately chosen to be so genericly high cheekboned and lily white that you can't actually tell them apart, I feel like it's a small step in the right direction to show women you can actually differentiate. It's a low bar, I know. But hopefully we can raise it little by little.

    2. Exactly! It's broken down more eloquently here: http://jazzylittledrops.tumblr.com/post/48118645174/why-doves-real-beauty-sketches-video-makes-me, but basically, of the entire 6.5 minute ad, people of color were only onscreen for about 10 seconds. Not to mention, many of the women felt better about themselves because they weren't perceived as being as fat as they thought they were, or met Western beauty ideals better than they realized.

      It's fine to shift the dialogue and help all women feel beautiful, but it's still dangerous for it to all be based on one definition of beauty that excludes so many people.

    3. There are certainly flaws in this campaign, but to be honest the reason I didn't write more about them here is because I feel other people have done a much better job than I could of breaking it all down. I wanted to add something different to the discourse, something I felt wasn't already being said by everyone else.

  5. I watched the video of the new Dove campaign and actually thought it was very refreshing. There have been so many times that I've thought about a friend, "I wish she could just see herself as I see her. Just for a day. Then she'd realize how beautiful and amazing she really is." This video really drove that point home.


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