Menu Close

Thinking pop culture

Dove and a sketch of faux-empowerment

The formula for peddling luxury items has always been simple: establish a need by pointing to a deficiency and then proffering a solution. Ta daa: marketing 101.

Initially the Dove differential began as one about a soap that was supposedly more moisturising than its shelf counterparts. Years on and the difference has become centred on empowerment.

Rather than being a “women’s” brand in the standard pink packaging/floral or gourmand fragrances way, Dove’s cut-through has been predicated on their advertising. Doing advertising in a way that appears cutting-edge and of the Zeitgeist.

In a consumer savvy world where women know all about air-brushing and false promises, Dove decided to play it differently.

Rather than once again hiring a couple of supermodels to tout the physique transforming properties of their soap, instead Dove dared to claim that they care about women’s self-esteem.

The Dove Evolution campaign for example, tapped into the feminist chatter about the evils of Photoshop and offered up a spot that highlighted the behind-the-scenes toil of beauty images (while simultaneously flogging soap):

The Pro-age campaign similarly centred on the “renegade” idea that beauty doesn’t solely reside in the nubile bodies of pre-teens (while simultaneously marketing anti-ageing products):

Not for a moment do I think these campaigns are heinous. The one centred on girls and sport for instance, is both moving and distressing:

Video caption here.

Equally moving, equally distressing, is Dove’s newest “Real Beauty Sketches” campaign:

Sketches - launched in the last couple of days - is designed to spotlight the grotesque disparity between how women see ourselves and how others see us.

In sum, apparently we’re nowhere near as hideous as we think.

There’s an effortless point to made here about hypocrisy: that the very same company who aims to fix our broken selves is owned by Unilever, a monolith responsible for brands such as Lynx: a deodorant marketed exclusively through female objectification:

Equally so, there’s an easy point about the fact that for all their empowerment guff, Dove is still trying to sell. That no matter how interesting their message, it’s still all couched in a tout.

Worthwhile also, is to spotlight Dove’s oh so well-worn “feminist enlightenment” strategy of selling women their empowerment. It’s certainly not a new strategy to distinguish a brand by flattering women through acknowledging their savvy, their marketplace choice and their power, but still steering them towards the register, peddled product in hand. This style has been around since the 80s.

My central concern with Sketches is that it is still focuses on beauty. On appearance. For all the smoke and mirrors of esteem elevation, it’s still saying that women should dwell on how we look.

Not for a moment am I claiming that caring about appearance, about the smoothness of our skin or the frizziness - or lack thereof - of our hair is a bad thing. These are preoccupations that plague even those of us who make a living from analysing the interplay between images and culture.

But to pretend that Dove is doing something revolutionary or groundbreaking with its newest campaign is ridiculous. The campaign still puts the focus on appearance. Worst still, on judgment.

The premise of Sketches is that women are “more beautiful than they think”. How is more determined in the context? By other people: oh, she has really warm eyes, oh, she has such the beautiful smile.

If self-esteem is to be buoyed solely by what other people think of us - about the compliments and validation from peers and the faux-flattery of advertisers - this establishes a vicious cycle that contributes absolutely nothing to healing or to lasting self-love.

Sure, I’d pick a Dove campaign over a Lynx one any day. And sure, I got a bit teary watching the Sketches campaign. But to pretend that this is more than moving units of soap or more than telling women that their appearance is their most important asset, is wishful thinking at best.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,800 academics and researchers from 4,984 institutions.

Register now