Sometimes I feel like social media turns me into some kind of awful, gruesome caricature of a feminist. I spend waayyyy too much time jumping in on Facebook posts or tweets or blogs to explain why this specific thing, whatever it happens to be, is actually problematic. And I try not to do this, honest I do. I know that it’s annoying as fuck. I know that I come off like I’m Lisa Simpson except ten times worse and with more swears. I know that. I promise I do.
All of this is to explain why I have been so quiet and patient about Dove’s latest marketing campaign, Dove Real Beauty Sketches. I haven’t said anything about it. Nada. Zilch. Haven’t commented on anyone’s links, haven’t tweeted about it, haven’t even whispered darkly about it to myself when I’m alone at night and unlikely to offend anyone.
But then my friend Shannon wrote this brilliant piece about it, and after seeing the reactions to her post in the comments on her blog and from people on Facebook, I’ve realized that I have to say something. I’m not going to talk about how their recent campaign continues to perpetuate the idea that a woman’s most important asset is her appearance. I’m not going to tear apart their youtube video, with its beautiful sadly hopeful background music and its tear-jerking content. Other people have done that better than I ever could, and I’m not going to step on their toes.
I do want to tell you one thing, though:
Dove does not give a shit about whether or not you feel beautiful.
They don’t. At all. Full stop.
All that Dove wants is for women to buy their products. And they’ve discovered that the best way to manipulate women in the Western world is to tell them that they’re beautiful. And you know what? This is a really fucking effective advertising strategy. Part of this success is because it goes against just about every marketing rule out there. Traditional advertising wisdom says that we should tell people that they’re lacking in something in order to make them buy it. Tell women that they’ll be more attractive if they use your makeup or skin cream or expensive shampoo. As Margaret Atwood explains in her short story Hairball, advertising to women is simple:
“You bombard them with images of what they ought to be, and you make them feel grotty for being the way they are. You’re working with the gap between reality and perception. That’s why you have to hit them with something new, something they’ve never seen before, something they aren’t. Nothing sells like anxiety.”
This has been the way that advertising has worked, more or less, for at least the last sixty or so years.
And then Dove came and seemed to flip the whole thing on its head in a way that seemed to be totally new and brave and laudable. They’ve taken the formula described above and are using it backwards – for instance, they’re looking at the gap between perception and reality and saying that, in fact, the perception that you are an ugly, worthless person is wrong, so let’s bridge the gap back to reality where you are actually incredibly beautiful and worthy. Instead of bombarding women with images of what they ought to be, they’re bombarding them with images of how they feel that they already are – curvy, wrinkled, imperfect – and telling them that this is real beauty. Instead of hitting people with something new, they’re hitting them with the so-called truth about themselves, full of platitudes and love and golly-gee niceness.
And all of this has been incredibly, insanely effective. Women are now buying Dove products not because they feel that these products will improve them, but because they’re loyal to a brand that sees them as truly, uniquely beautiful.
All of which would be fine, I guess, if that was actually what Dove thought.
But Dove does not give a shit about how you feel about yourself. Dove just wants to manipulate you into buying their products.
How do I know this? Well, setting my general cynicism about large corporations aside, I know this because Dove is owned by Unilever. And while Unilever uses Dove to sell warm, fuzzy, watered-down feminism to Western women, it uses several of its other companies to do the exact opposite.
Unilever also owns Axe, which is well-known for creating advertising campaigns that are, well, the opposite of empowering to women. A typical example of their preferred style of advertising is the that one I’ve posted below, in which a young man spraying himself liberally with Axe is suddenly surrounded by a mob of thin, bikini-clad super models. These commercials are not only degrading to women (by putting forth the idea that men are only attracted one specific body type, and that for women to fail to attain that body type means to fail to be beautiful), but they’re also degrading to men (by perpetuating the stereotype that men are all sex-crazed beasts who just want to go to booty town with as many hot, sexy ladies as possible).
It is seriously such a fucking joke that Dove makes videos about how many unattainable images of beauty a young girl will be subjected to as she grows up and how this will warp her self-perception, while at the SAME FUCKING TIME Axe is creating those unattainable images of beauty.
Even worse, Unilever owns Indian brand Fair and Lovely, a skin-bleaching cream marketed especially to girls from lower-class families. This cream, which is part sunscreen, part moisturizer, and part skin-lightener, promises women with darker skin that they will be able to find better, higher-paying jobs by having fairer skin. It’s even marketed as being “empowering” to women because having lighter skin gives them more “choices” in life.
Yeah, that’s right. The same company that, in North America, tells you to own and love your body the way it is, tells Indian women that they need to be whiter in order to be successful.
Like I said, Unilever and, by extension, Dove do not give a shit about whether or not you feel beautiful. The only thing that they’re interested in doing is manipulating women into buying their products. For North American women, they do this by telling them that they are beautiful, no matter what they look like. For North American men, they do this by promising that their products will attract droves of hot babes. And for Indian women, they do this by telling them that if only they looked more like white people, they could achieve all of their dreams.
Dove described their Campaign for Real Beauty as “a global effort is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.”
They’ve used the tagline, “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”
Their website is full of criticisms of the beauty industry, self-esteem builders, and gushing comments from loyal Dove users.
All of this is bullshit.
And you know what? I feel really bad saying that because I know a lot of women who have been inspired by this campaign. I know women who feel that this campaign has helped remind them that they, too are beautiful. I know so many women who really, really love this campaign. And I don’t want to tell them that they’re wrong! I just want them to know that, at the end of the day, Dove doesn’t care.
Dove doesn’t care, but I do. And lots of other people do. There are even organizations out there, organizations that are not owned by giant corporations, that care. We think you’re beautiful, and we’re not standing to make any kind of profit off of that thought. More than that, we think you’re smart, capable, funny, kind, all-around great people. We love everything about you.
And you know what? When I tell you that, I am not making a fucking cent off of it.
Here are a few videos of advertising campaigns from Dove, Axe and Fair and Lovely, in case you want to compare: