Dove recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of an upbeat, all-girls-together advertising campaign that aims to celebrate real beauty. Or as Dove puts it, Real Beauty, which is sort of like the trademarked version of being Size 10 and looking a little tired.
The message is supposed to be that Dove loves real women. Except that recent videos suggest that Dove also loves tricking real women. And maybe making them cry. You know that moment when a woman brings her hands up to her mouth and weeps happy-sad tears? Dove seems to live for that moment.
These days, not all of Dove's fans are poignantly happy-sad. Some of them are mad. The latest Real Beauty video, Dove Beauty Patches, has generated some real ugly backlash. Maybe, some critics suggest, these ads are not as empowering as Dove declares. Maybe these ads are condescending and manipulative and a wee bit two-faced. Maybe the Real Beauty campaign is pretending to be your new best friend, while subtly undermining you. Maybe the Real Beauty campaign is a Mean Girl.
Over a decade-long run, Dove's multi-platform ads have generated a lot of consumer goodwill, some of it well-deserved. Bringing ordinary women into advertising images is a simple idea -- they are the ones buying these products, after all -- but it can also be a surprisingly revolutionary one.
Take Dove's images of regular gals wearing plain white underwear and looking comfortable in their own skins. Blowing up these pictures to billboard size became a radical act simply because most mass-media images of women are so smooth, skinny and standardized. The sight of an actual woman was enough to bring viewers up short.
Another instructive conversation-starter was the 2006 video, Evolution of Beauty, which used time-lapse footage to show a nice-looking woman being changed into a stunning supermodel. After her face is shellacked with makeup and her hair is tortured and teased, her image is tweaked with Photoshop to add those slightly inhuman touches that have become the new magazine standard. We're confronted with an image of perfection, but we now know how it was achieved. We also have Dove, our BFF, reassuring us. "You're perfect just the way you are," reads the tagline.
Now at a certain point, some consumers began to feel uncomfortable about Dove telling us how perfect we are while simultaneously trying to sell us things. Things started to get even weirder in 2013 with Real Beauty Sketches. In this three-minute video, a police forensic artist draws women as they see themselves and then as others see them. After playing up the women's relentless fault-finding and lousy self-esteem, the video springs the big reveal, in which the women finally see their "true beauty." Supporters claimed that the ad encouraged women to stop being so hard on themselves.
Detractors pointed out that the women were already conventionally attractive, being mostly young, thin and blond, and their so-called empowerment consisted of being convinced they were even more conventionally attractive. Not exactly a feminist victory.
Dove crossed the line from controversial to creepy with the Real Beauty Patches video, released this month, in which a coolly competent psychologist interviews a group of women about their appearance and then asks them to test a new product. "RB-X" is a pharmaceutical patch designed to enhance the way they perceive their beauty. In video diaries that track their steadily rising self-esteem, the women talk about wearing sleeveless dresses, trying out different hairstyles and generally becoming more confident and outgoing.
Now, if you've ever heard of the term "placebo effect," you can probably see where this is headed. In the video's dramatic turnabout, the test subjects find out this miracle-working patch contains nothing -- nothing at all! -- and they respond with rueful laughter and a gratifying amount of crying.
Supposedly, the Patches video "proves" that women shouldn't require external props to feel beautiful, that they already hold everything they need within themselves. Critics suggest that what it really proves is the need for better science education, so that people stop falling for dubious pseudo-pysch experiments.
One way to gauge public reaction is through viral video spoofs, and Patches has already generated a doozy. It starts out Dove-like, with some chummy narration. ("What do we as women really think about our appearance?") A lab-coated clinician interviews three ordinary women. She then leaves the room, first pointing out a "mirror," which turns out to be a hole in the wall framing a man in a gorilla suit. After some comic hijinks, the researcher returns with a triumphant conclusion. That's not really your reflection, the patronising researcher tells the women. "You're not actually a hideous monster, after all," and Dove has "showed you, using science."
The "Dove Real Beauty Mirror Test" hilariously points out some of the tensions in the Real Beauty initiative. Dove might claim to be on a social mission, but ultimately Real Beauty is an ad strategy designed to sell moisturizer. Part of the Unilever empire, Dove started out in 1955 as one iconic bar of white soap that was famously "one-quarter cleansing cream." It now competes in a billion-dollar industry, where proliferating products clog the beauty aisles, serving super-specific, often recently invented "needs."
For all its progressive rhetoric, Dove drives sales by colonizing new areas of insecurity.
But for many critics, the real problem with the Real Beauty campaign is that women's self-esteem still comes down to beauty, even if it is a much more expansive and accessible kind of beauty. Dove tells us that everyone is beautiful, and that's not a bad thing. But an even better thing would be to tell women that maybe we don't have to be beautiful, that maybe there are other, more important ways of thinking about ourselves.
Now, an ad that could sell that idea would really make me cry with happiness.