Dove’s latest ad campaign calls for women around the world to renounce the media’s narrow, unattainable standards of beauty and replace them with a message of female empowerment.
So why are so many women so upset?
Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, which advocates more female leadership in advertising, called the “Choose Beautiful” campaign, released last week, “heavy-handed and manipulative,” while Jean Kilborne, the filmmaker behind Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women, termed it “very patronizing.” Dove, The Guardian says, “has mastered the art of passing off somewhat passive-aggressive and patronising advertising as super-empowering, ultra PR-able social commentary.”
The new campaign centers around a nearly four-minute video showing women in five global cities being offered the option to enter a building through either of two doors: one labeled “beautiful,” the other “average.” Most women walk through the “average” door. But soon, amid swelling keyboards, their gaits grow more confident and their faces glow as a procession of them—the beaming woman with her daughter, the young woman in a wheelchair—warm to the inspiring possibilities for those who #ChooseBeautiful.
“It’s quite a triumphant feeling,” one woman says. “It’s like telling the world, ‘I think I’m beautiful.’”
Put aside the cinematics and girl-power uplift, and there are questions: What exactly made the women switch doors? Might it feel a bit immodest to tell the world, “I think I’m beautiful”? Why only beautiful or average—how about fetching or charming or magnetic? How is a beauty bar or body wash empowering? And what about men? Don’t they get a door?
“Choose Beautiful” is the latest iteration of Dove’s polarizing yet phenomenally successful “Movement for Self-Esteem” (called “Campaign for Real Beauty” until 2010). In 10 years, it has reportedly helped boost Dove sales from $2.5 billion to $4 billion. Ad Age has named it the best advertising campaign of the 21st century. Previous ads in the series include the 2005 “Tested on Real Curves” photos of non-models in white underwear and the 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” video, by some counts the most viral ad ever.
Already, “Choose Beautiful” has reached more than 5 million viewers on YouTube, and the search term “Dove ‘choose beautiful’” yields more than a million entries on Google. Hundreds of media outlets have covered the video, some gushingly and credulously (Yahoo News said it “proves beauty is a choice”), though there are plenty of skeptics.
Comments on Buzzfeed reflected the Internet’s schizoid reaction. (The site posted, then removed, and then reposted a piece about the campaign though not, the editor says, because Dove or other Unilever brands have advertised on his site. “NOT EVERYONE IS BEAUTIFUL AND THAT IS PERFECTLY OKAY,” one commenter wrote. Another countered: “I find it odd that people disapprove of an ad whose whole purpose was to get women to all realize that they were beautiful.”
The video’s two-doors dilemma sprang from a 2004 Dove study called “The Truth About Beauty,” updated in 2011, that found that “only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful”; most say they’re “average.” Its lead author was Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard evolutionary psychologist and the author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. (Etcoff has also consulted for cosmetics brands sold by Procter & Gamble, an arch-competitor of Unilever, finding that women who wear makeup are perceived as more likable, competent, and trustworthy than those who don’t—a result somewhat dissonant with Dove’s emphasis on how a woman sees herself rather than on how others see her.)
Etcoff appears on the “Choose Beautiful” Tumblr hub promoting mindfulness, a topic that seems slightly off-message, but her presence, along with the 4 percent figure, gives the campaign a scientific gloss. Unlike Etcoff’s work for Harvard, however, the study underpinning Dove’s message is not academic research; it’s market research, conducted by a division of Edelman, Dove’s PR firm.
Similarly, for the “Choose Beautiful” video, Dove did not perform an actual social experiment involving two doors. Nor did it make a documentary. And its well-credentialed advisory board and impressive partnerships not withstanding, Dove’s Movement for Self-Esteem is not a movement. It’s also arguable whether Dove’s campaign is rooted in science. For while it may be true that only 4 percent of women think they’re beautiful, the research also found that 71 percent women are satisfied with their beauty.
Dove didn’t choose to highlight that heartening statistic. Rather than #ChooseBeautiful, it went the other way. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed’s beauty editor resigned in apparent protest, ensuring another wave of articles about Dove’s latest campaign. Despite all of the controversy around this campaign—and partly because of it, and the attention it’s drawn—empowerment marketing has worked amazing well for Dove. This campaign is no exception.
Susan Chumsky is a writer and editor in New York City. Her last story for Fortune was about a literary agent who has made bestsellers out of cat photos.
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Dove's "Real Beauty" Backlash
by Jennifer L. Pozner
Published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Issue 30, Fall, 2005
When it comes to Madison Avenue misogyny, usually it's the ad that's objectionable (hello, Advertising Week!), rather than the product itself.
The opposite is true in the latest incarnation of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty," which poses a bevy of full-figured babes in bras and boyshorts on billboards throughout New York, Chicago, DC, LA and other top urban markets ... just in time for the rollout of their new line of "firming cremes."
If the same smiling size sixes (and eights, and tens) were hawking hair dye or shilling for soap, the campaign would be revolutionary - but despite the company's continued and commendable intent to expand notions of female beauty to include the non-skinny and non-white, Dove's attempts are profoundly limited by a product line that comes with its own underlying philosophy: cellulite is unsightly, women's natural aging process is shameful, and flabby thighs are flawed and must be fixed oh, so conveniently by Dove's newest lotion.
The feel-good "women are ok at whatever size" message is hopelessly hampered by the underlying attempt to get us to spend, spend, spend to "correct" those pesky "problem areas" advertisers have always told us to hate about our bodies. As Salon.com's Rebecca Traister put it, the message is "love your ass but not the fat on it."
Yet even though Dove's "real beauty" ads play to and subtly reinforce the stereotypes they claim to be exposing, it's impossible not to feel inspired by the sight of these attractive, healthy women smiling playfully at us from their places of billboard honor, their voluptuous curves all the more luscious alongside the bags-of-bones in competitors' campaigns.
Unless, of course, you're Chicago Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper, who reacted to Dove's "chunky women" with the sort of fear and loathing he should reserve for the cheesy Hollywood schlock he regularly "thumbs up" during his Ebert & Roeper film reviews. "I find these Dove ads a little unsettling. If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I'll go to Taste of Chicago, OK?," Roeper ranted, saying that while he knows he should probably praise Dove for breaking away from airbrushed, impossible-to-achieve, youth-obsessed ad imagery, he much prefers to bitch and moan. "When we're talking women in their underwear on billboards outside my living room windows, give me the fantasy babes, please. If that makes me sound superficial, shallow and sexist -- well yes, I'm a man."
Unsettling? Try Roeper's implication that all men are just naturally sexist-and that a man who wears gender-based bigotry as a badge of pride has some of the most power in the media to determine which films succeed and which fail. (Remember Reoper's admission next time his thumb goes way up for a flick whose humor rarely rises above cheap gags about sperm as hair gel, or when he pans a promising movie centered around strong female characters.)
Dozens of major media outlets jumped on Roeper's comments as an excuse to run insulting headlines such as "Fab or Flab," with stories exploring the "controversy" over whether Dove's ads are, as People put it, "the best thing to happen to advertising since the free sample, or an eyesore of outsize proportions."
The tone of this debate turned nasty, quickly, with women's self esteem in one camp and men's fragile eyes in another as typified by a second Sun Times writer's comments that these "disturbing" and "frightening" women should "put on clothes (please, really)" because "ads should be about the beautiful people. They should include the unrealistic, the ideal or the unattainable look for which so many people strive." Besides, wrote Lucio Guerrero, "the only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it."
From there, print and broadcast outlets featured a stream of man-on-the-street interviews begging Madison Avenue to bring back the starvation-saturated, silicone enhanced sweeties they'd come to expect seeing on their commutes to work, echoing Guerrero's mean-spirited musings.
Some masked their aesthetic objections under the guise of health concerns: "At the risk of sounding politically incorrect," Bill Zwecker, the balding, paunchy, middle-aged anchor of CBS's local newscast in Chicago, weighed in on his CBS blog, "In this day and age, when we are facing a huge obesity problem in this country, we don't need to encourage anyone -- women OR men -- to think it's okay to be out of shape." Perhaps this line of attack would have been more convincing if the women in the ads were unhealthily overweight (they're actually smaller-sized than the average American woman), or if Zwecker was a little more GQ and a little less Couch Potato Quarterly.
Certainly, these men so quick to demonize "the Dove girls" show no understanding that those "fantasy babes" of traditional ads have a profoundly negative impact on the health of girls and women in America. Advertising has never glorified obesity (though that problem is arguably a byproduct of McDonalds, M&Ms and other junk food ads), but the industry has equated starvation and drug addiction with women's beauty and value for decades.
The "real beauty" backlash underscores just how necessary Dove's campaign is - however hypocritical the product they're selling may be. What's "unsettling" is not that Roeper, Guerrero and Zwecker might have to look at empowerment-infused ads targeted to female consumers-it's that men with power positions in the media still think it's acceptable to demand that women be displayed only in the hyper-objectifying images they feel is somehow their due.
Bio: Jennifer L. Pozner, executive director of Women In Media & News, has commented on Dove's "real beauty" campaign, and the new Nike "my butt is big" campaign that aims to capitalize on Dove's hype - in outlets including ABC News Now, Good Day NY (Fox-5), Advertising Age, People magazine, the Daily News, the Ottawa Citizen, Pacifica Radio and others. She's spoken and written at length about representations of women in war coverage, economics reporting, and even Desperate Housewives, with little to no interest from the media, but throw a few Rubinesque babes on a billboard ...
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