When I heard there was a new Dove ad, I clicked the link with trepidation. Over the last few years, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has become a byword for ‘fauxpowerment’ – which, if you don’t like bad portmanteaus, roughly translates to ‘patronising bullshit’.
You know how it’s supposed to work: the women on screen are told they’re beautiful, the women at home think “I’m beautiful!”, the women at home purchase Dove bubble bath, everyone’s a winner. Well, parent company Unilever’s a winner anyway – Dove’s sales increased from $2.5 billion in 2004 to over $4 billion in 2014, and they amassed a shedload of ad awards in the process.
Evidently the formula isn’t broken yet, and this latest execution doesn’t try to fix it. This time round, Dove set up two labeled entrances to shopping centres in Shanghai, San Francisco, London, Sao Paulo and Delhi – one marked ‘beautiful’ and one marked ‘average’. Which door would women choose to walk through? Most modestly picked the ‘average’ entrance, backing Dove’s contention that ladies’ self-esteem is too low and that they really ought to #ChooseBeautiful.
After all, as one of the women concluded, “Beautiful’s a great word, so why not see what’s on the other side of that?” (In her case, sadly, it was just a shopping centre.) I was disappointed that nobody took the opportunity to construct a makeshift third entrance – perhaps a smashed window or something – labeled ‘LOL WTF Unilever’, but then I suppose most people like to communicate through reasoned argument, rather than through breaking and entering.
This is something Dove failed to realise about its subjects, whom it clearly holds in low regard. Do you know who else attempts to learn about their subjects through observing their choice of entryway? Behavioural scientists conducting experiments on rats, that’s who – only the rats have more incentive, in that there’s a maze, and there are sugarcubes.
The rats are probably also given meaningful choices. Familiar-smelling bedding or fresh, unsoiled bedding? Chocolate or cheese? Male rat A or female rat B? These are clear-cut questions, which the rat can answer in a satisfactory way. It’s not like ‘beautiful or average’, which dissipates under scrutiny into a fine semantic mist.
As far as I can tell, the kind of ‘beautiful’ that Dove is selling – the kind it wants women to ‘choose’ – is the nebulous, all-inclusive kind of beauty that’s more about state of mind than physical appearance. It’s the sort of word that works extraordinarily well in marketing campaigns and Christina Aguilera songs (latterly One Direction), because it brings on the warm fuzzies without denoting anything concrete.
‘Average’, by contrast, implies something quantifiable and comparable, something with a normal distribution you could plot on a bell curve. If this were really about physical appearance, then of course most people would cluster around the middle. But in a world where everyone is beautiful, average IS beautiful. It certainly isn’t the antonym.
There was a time when I wasn’t so disparaging about Dove. When the Real Beauty Campaign started in 2004, it dealt a blow to the prevailing visual culture, expanding definitions of attractive to include the plumper, older, frecklier and more flat-chested.
Back then, the women on the billboards were sort of glorious. They were full of life and energy and they unapologetically owned who they were, meaning that even if you didn’t rate their chances in a pageant, you had to find their joie de vivre appealing.
I actually went to a casting myself at one point – it’s a bit weird to look back on now, but when the opportunity arose I jumped at it, and I gushed about Real Beauty on all the paperwork. I’m sure, given my slightly deranged enthusiasm, I’d have been a great brand ambassador, if I’d had any on-camera skills whatsoever.
Anyway, something seemed to shift several years ago, when Dove started making syrupy video shorts. These included ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ (2013), which ‘explores the gap between how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves’, and ‘Selfie’ (2014), which ‘captures the digital journey of a group of high school girls and their mothers’.
Here, the emphasis was on redemptive narrative arcs: underconfident girls and women being shown the one true path to self-esteem by a soap brand. The emotions were heightened with cloying mood music, which was probably composed by selecting ‘tearjerking’ from a dropdown menu, and platitudes that would have made Gok Wan a bit nauseous.
#ChooseBeautiful is no different. If anything, it’s more saccharine, more infantilising, and even more void of logic. Obviously, I am all for women feeling good about themselves and happy in their own skin, without being hamstrung by self-loathing. But as many, many people have pointed out, surely the solution is not to tell all women that they’re beautiful (in the manner of doling out a cookie to every child), but simply to spend less time fixating on what we look like. We can’t all be supermodels, however many Dove Supreme Fine Silk Hand Wash Pouches we buy, and if ‘beautiful’ is taken to mean ‘worthwhile as a human being’, then coughing up for branded hand wash serves even less of a purpose.
A few commenters have added that, since Unilever also owns Lynx (whose marketing is famously shallow), Dove’s ad campaign rests on shaky foundations. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’d like to see what would happen if the two brands swapped marketing teams.
On one hand, you’d get tearful, Lynx-soused teenage boys having revelations about their inner beauty; on the other hand, you’d get Dove aficionados mobbed in the street by sexy men. All things considered, I think I prefer that scenario. Give me the #DoveEffect any time, rather than placing a weird moral value on #ChoosingBeautiful.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands