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.|
|Image courtesy of Dr. Nerdlove|
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.