Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Advertising Industry and Beauty Norms: Further Reflections on Dove's Sketches

Last week, I watched the Dove Sketches commercial and I (like many of my friends and acquaintances) was positively impacted by the message that I am more beautiful than I think. I then did some thinking about it and realized that it was still sending a message about beauty being the primary goal, which can be a problem. Trying to reconcile my own liking of the video with this problematic message, I wrote a somewhat convoluted post about the definition of beauty. Ultimately, I think I was working too hard to jump through hoops to justify liking the video.

Since then, I've read a lot about this campaign. This post from Little Drops does an excellent job of demonstrating the problems with the video. It not only reinforces "beauty" as the goal, it reinforces a very narrow standard of beauty by focusing on whiteness and thinness. I saw the parody video. I read the objections and the defenses and I did some thinking.

Then, when I wasn't actively thinking about it at all, something happened that made me think about it in yet another way.

I haven't had cable or satellite for almost two years. This has meant that my exposure to commercials has been cut way down. Last week, though, I gave in to ATT and got U-Verse. Today I was cleaning my living room and watching a Roseanne marathon.

Roseanne is a show that is known for pushing the envelope. It dared to show a woman who wasn't a perfect mother, who was working class, and whose body didn't fit the narrow definitions of beauty standards. In the episode I was watching, Roseanne dared to refer to her own body as beautiful and "hot" multiple times. Sure, she was playing up the societal discord for laughs, but she was also displaying confidence and empowerment. Roseanne is a show (even two decades later) that challenges our norms.

In the midst of this show, I was given these two ads back to back. One is for Jenny Craig and features a woman who cries because she only has one picture of herself since her child was born. She says that now that she's lost 30 pounds she is willing to be in the pictures of her own life again.

While looking for the clip online, I found another clip of the same woman explaining that she now sees herself as "beautiful," something she "never" would have said before losing the weight.

Immediately following this ad, I was displayed a commercial for Greek yogurt that features a complete stranger berating a mother for sacrificing her own appearance to be a better parent. The stranger mocks her hair and tells her that she can at least have good yogurt without sacrifices. 

It's no coincidence that these ads are both aimed at middle-aged mothers. They ran during Roseanne, and they were preying on that particular demographic. 

It doesn't take nearly as much analysis to unpack the messages in these ads. You are flawed. Fix yourself. Lose the weight so that you can be worthy of being in the pictures of your own life because right now you're hideous and right to hide from the camera. The marketing strategy is dependent upon making us feel bad about ourselves so that we will throw money at the gaping hole in our self-reflection that ads like this spend their time carving out of us.

Since it had been so long since I'd seen an ad on TV, it was easy for me to view the Dove ads in something of a vacuum. Once I remembered the context in which they were airing, though, I had to rethink my stance a little.

Look, there has been a lot of speculation about whether the marketers at Dove are sincere about their desire to make women feel better about themselves. Chief among these concerns is the evidence that the company that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns AXE, and those commercials are basically cesspools of misogyny.

In my mind, there is no speculation. I have absolutely no belief that whoever greenlighted and funded the Dove campaign gives a damn whether I feel good about myself or not. The company cares about what all companies care about: making money.

Dove, though, is making a bet that they don't have to make women feel horrible about their own bodies in order to turn a profit. Dove is betting that we're pretty fed up with being told day in and day out that our skin, hair, eyes, teeth, nails, and eyelashes are flawed. Dove is hoping that people are sick of the way that the beauty industry assumes that it doesn't matter how horrible it treats us, that--in fact--the worse it treats us the more money we will throw at it to make it go away. Dove is hoping that we're a little bit smarter than that, that we're opening our eyes, that we aren't going to accept that marketing strategy forever.

So, is Dove still trying to focus on physical beauty? Of course they are. They sell beauty products. Is Dove giving in to an image of beauty that is narrowly constructed with all kinds of privilege built in? Of course they are. They sell beauty products in America.

I am not excusing the problematic aspects of Dove's ad. I am not saying that we shouldn't be talking about those things or that Dove doesn't have a responsibility to its consumers to do a better job.

I am saying, though, that what Dove is doing isn't heartening because of what it says about Dove. What Dove is doing is heartening because of what it says about us. Dove is pouring money into these campaigns because they think it will pay off in the long run, and they think it will pay off in the long run because they've heard us saying that we're sick of being treated like mannequins for products instead of human beings with lives. They've seen things like the #KeepItReal campaign (which I wrote about before) and the SPARK Movement. They've seen the power of social media in breaking through previously impervious marketing lies, and they are making a bet on the future.

What's really great about Dove is that it shows that companies can listen. They might not get it 100% right, but it's a lot better than 100% wrong.  

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