“Real beauty” and advertising

Before we get started, if you haven’t seen the Dove commercial everyone has decided to either love or feel very offended by, then please take a look at the following link: http://realbeautysketches.dove.com/

Let’s get two things perfectly fucking clear, guys: I liked the commercial and I’m not an oblivious idiot who thinks Dove is trying to change the world. The message is intended to sell Dove products. Dove’s beauty and care products, for that matter. Also, Dove is owned by Unilever. And Unilever is a massive corporation that owns a ridiculous amount of brands that make products consumed by everyone everywhere whether they like it, or are aware of it, or not (yikes). It’s also a corporation whose name is attached to not-so-women-friendly advertising. Like the OMO commercials that tell society women’s main concern in life should be washing their kid’s clothes to an eye-piercing shade of white, or that AXE men’s deodorant will make women wild or something (I never quite understood those, but the gist of it is that they are super-duper degrading to everyone involved. Does anyone remember the chocolate man? Gross on so many levels!). So yes. The ‘critics’ are absolutely right, Dove is probably an asshole. But guys, can we try a little social experiment ourselves? One whereby we remain skeptical, but are also able to celebrate the small victories?


The world isn’t going to change in a day. Women of color, heavier women, shorter women, different-abled women, women who look more like the drawing on the left… None of these women are really the heroines of the storyboard for this commercial and that totally sucks. Like big time. I feel that way too. But how about the fact that the protagonists of this ad who actually manage to conform to beauty ideals to a great extent (skinny, white, whatever) still have such a critical view of themselves? Is that not remarkable? Is that not worth our time? Like fuck you, white blondie, you have it too good for us “real” women to relate? Or screw you young white heterosexual lady with a headless boyfriend in the next shot, you’re too straight to know how LGBTQ women feel? Is that not a little bit like… the opposite of what we want?

Our struggles are ALL different but it’s exactly this messy and beautiful kaleidoscope of issues and identities that makes the feminist cause an inclusive one! Hooray for diversity. Right? And that includes not shitting on other women for being somewhat closer to some norm! Because guess what we learned from this ad guys? We all share this awful rigidity with which we learned to look at ourselves as women because, guess fucking what? In our fucked up societies, we only get shown images of women who look a certain way! So I say that any tiny little divergence from that norm, however small, and however minute and manipulative even, is actually a little victory! A tiny, little, at times barely visible transgression, if you will.

And can I just say that in reality I am incredibly excited that so many people are on board with thinking critically about what the media is presenting us with? Like seriously, the very fact that we’re seeing people get together to criticize the oppressor as opposed to the oppressed is really very encouraging and maybe I shouldn’t even be complaining. And yet I am because even though I recognize the selective and opportunistic practices with which the message is being conveyed, it still sends out a solid message about how women can beat themselves up about their looks unnecessarily. Say what you want about the stranger’s gaze as a mode of self-validation, but I think at the end of the day our issues with self-confidence are much more about fears of not being accepted or seen for who we are beyond our looks than they are about us genuinely giving a shit about having imperfect skin or whatever.

Look, marketing and publicity are moral gray areas – usually perhaps a very dark gray leaning on immorality, sure. But that’s because morality is not the goal. Using cultural symbols and cues that consumers can read and understand (and this usually does mean stereotyping and the use of conventions about beauty and a strong reference to heteronormativity) to sell products is what marketing does. And I’m not defending that at all. But it’s the name of the game and so of course it will upset people when companies pretend that they are a moral force. Like as if Unilever gives two shits about women feeling that their crow’s feet are destroying their lives, so long as they buy Dove’s skillfully named “Pro-age” cream. But I prefer to look at this as a glass-half-full type situation.

We, women of the planet who are not models often do feel excluded from, and intimidated by, advertising. All that Dove is doing is nudging towards including us. Or some of us. Or someone who kind of looks more like they could sit down and have a coffee with us. Maybe even a piece of cake. And I say that’s a fucking fair enough strategy. We’re consumers and very profitable ones at that. So if Dove wants to engage us by sending positive as opposed to negative messages, is that not kind of an improvement on your average “you’re awful, but use this product and no one will know that you’re ugly/fat/smelly/have your period which is totally gross” that we get faced with from your run-of-the-mill advertising campaigns?

Ladies, when it comes to advertising I say we should count our blessings! Especially regarding personal care products. Because let’s face it: it’s not like Dove’s competitors aren’t using skinny, white and young women to sell their products too. So at least their message is kinder. (And although they are practically mutes, I did see at least one Black and one Asian woman in the commercial.)

Now for a little confessionality: I am probably not the vainest person in the world. Nor am I the most insecure. But I’m not going to sit here and say I’m not affected by looks because that would be a lie. Yes, I can (as in, am able to) feel beautiful at times. But the variables that must be perfectly aligned for me to feel beautiful really make up a complex equation. I have suffered from redness on my face since I was 15. The past week, my skin issue has left my face feeling quite sensitive. As I result, I decided to try something I barely ever do: live life without any make up for a while. Give the good ol’ face a rest for once. And I am ashamed to admit it, but closing the front door of my house without wanting to turn around to mask those patches of redness for the last three days has been an exercise of determination.

And no, that’s not the most important thing about me. And of course this doesn’t paralyze me from doing what I want in life because I of all people fucking well know that looks are not everything. I’m practically embarrassed to admit that they’re even anything.

Yet if for some reason I was asked to describe myself on the first day I walked among other humans without my usual foundation routine this week, like the women on the video did, I probably would have described something that looks a lot like the Loch Ness monster: i.e. an imaginary and hideous creature. So forgive me for defending an ad by a soulless corporation, but on this particular occasion I personally really responded to its message. And it made me feel like I should be a little less cynical when those close to me tell me I don’t need all the make-up because maybe, just maybe, it’s all in my head too.

And, let’s face it, how often can we say that an ad campaign for a cosmetics brand made us feel better about ourselves?

  1. Michael said:

    Great post.

    This campaign and approach to marketing was conceived of by a very senior guy in Ogilvy advertising agency who heard some startling research one day.

    68% of women who read cosmopolitan magazine felt WORSE after reading it than better.

    This spurred the original creative idea for the ‘Evolution’ viral video that kicked off the whole concept.

    Sure, it’s a different way of marketing the same beauty goods and yes it’s owned by Unilever but the concept was dreamed up by a man who was genuinely sad to see how beauty ads and the industry were destroying women’s confidence.

    It is also still my favourite brand campaign concept of all time.

    • Hey Michael, thank you! I really agree with you about the Evolution video. I loved it at the time and it spurred a discussion which I’m so glad was had. I actually wish I had known the back-story to this kind of advertising at Dove before I wrote the post! How great that they went with the concept.
      It saddens me to see how now we’ve gotten to such a level of skepticism about media in general that those fighting the ‘good fight’ don’t seem to know how to pick their battles anymore and end up alienating women who obviously do identify with these messages.

  2. Tessa said:

    I really liked this ad, I thought it was a breath of freash air compaired to all the crap out there. Is going to change the way media depicts women? Probably not. Is it going to change the way women are affected by other ads? Probably not? Is it going to change how we view ourselves? Prabably, at least for a few minutes, and that is more than any other big cosmetic brand is doing. So yay for Dove. Between this or another brand hiring a 20-year old to sell anti-wrinkle products, I’d go with Dove. And I don’t think that their message is that beauty is not important, I think their message was “there is something beautiful in everyone even if you can’t see it in yourself”.

  3. (this is related what Michael said) I find that, all too often, people think of corporations as homogenous identities in which everyone has a certain hive-mind agenda. I prefer to think of corporations as communities of people with diverging goals, sensibilities, and personalities, working together or for eachother. I think then it’s only natural to find in corps people who have more than a monetary interest. People who DO care about their target audience.They are glad to be part of the corp, participating in their particular interest area. Sure money is the aim for many, possibly most. But let’s not forget those in a corp with good intentions, genuinely trying to achieve what they *think* would be positive social change 🙂

    I found the point about the ad being a small victory very interesting. I’m quite critical of Dove’s definition of beauty, a very narrow one. But If some women feel less anxiety because of this, I guess that’s a good thing. Then again, maybe it’s not if that relief comes at a cost to those other women even further from that beauty norm, who feel they can’t even identify as being part of the “maybe beautiful” category. As a heterosexual white male, I’m don’t think I’ve the right to say what women should or shouldn’t feel either way.

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