Friday, April 19, 2013

My problem with the problem with the Dove campaign

I watched the Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” ad campaign. I mean, how could I not? It has blown up my Facebook feed for the past several days. I’m going to assume, for the purposes of this post, that you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here:

Okay, so we’re all on the same page. I don’t have to tell you what happens in the movie, right? Right.

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that the movie made me feel good. It was touching to see and hear these women realize that they are much harsher on themselves (when it comes to physical appearance) than others are.  I thought the message was great (“You are more beautiful than you think”) and it left me feeling pretty warm and fuzzy inside.

And then, of course, someone comes out with an article that basically says, “Come on, you mindless cattle. You just fell prey to a marketing ploy that sends a dangerous message. They tell you that you have to be beautiful, and you don’t! Not in this way! Stop following blindly and think about this, and you’ll realize that I’m right and you should be angry at this ad for tricking you into feeling those happy things.”

And I’m like….okaaaaay. You’re right. “Beauty” shouldn’t be defined by how we look. It shouldn’t be “thin, no glaring imperfections, with hair this length and eyes this color.” It shouldn’t be. Beauty should be based on your inner “appearance,” how you treat/perceive others, how you act when no one is looking, what you do to better yourself, how you feel. Yes that’s beauty. I totally agree.

So why did this Dove ad make me feel so dang happy?

In trying to be completely fair to both sides of the argument, I’ve come up with a few factors that I think should be kept in mind when considering this campaign.

1) The problem the ad addresses is real.

The article against the Dove campaign makes a very important statement, the idea of which is basically this: Who you are is independent of how you look.

This is true. Or at least, it should be. The fact is, though, that women think about their physical appearance. A lot. Whether we should or not, we care.  We shower and comb our hair and trim/paint our nails and put on makeup and brush our teeth and exercise because we care. (Yes, I know some of those things serve hygienic/health purposes also, but they affect our appearance, and we care about that. I really don’t think that can be denied).

Not only do we focus on these things, but we let them affect how we feel. I know that I, personally, feel more confident when I feel “put together.” I can act more like myself if I don’t feel like people are judging me based on my frizzy hair, giant zit on my chin, or sweaty…um, everything (Arizona in the summer, people).

Feeling confident, or feeling like you can act like yourself, is important. And in a perfect world, those feelings wouldn’t be tied – at all – to physical appearance. But my goodness, our world isn’t perfect. This perception exists. It thrives. It’s the truth that a lot of women face, every single day. They are happier when they feel good about how they look. Right or wrong, THIS IS TRUE.

More than that, it’s easy to say “outer beauty doesn’t matter.” And some people, the smartest people, believe it. But others, you tell them “outer beauty doesn’t matter” and what do they think? They think “That’s easy for you to say. You’re beautiful. And you’re only telling me that because you think I’m ugly. I don’t want to be ugly, but I think I’m ugly, and now you think I’m ugly, and this makes me sad.” No matter how skewed this perception is, it is their reality. And it’s not an easy reality to fight against.

2) Dove’s ad does what it can to combat this perception.

First of all, we need to remember that Dove is a company that exists to sell beauty products. Whether we like it or not, Dove creates products that affect a woman’s outward appearance. They aren’t a counseling agency. They aren’t a self-esteem workshop or support group. They make soap, shampoo, deodorant, and lotion.

It isn’t exactly fair of us to expect Dove to say “You know what? It doesn’t matter if you have dry skin, or unhealthy hair, or really bad BO. Embrace it. You’re awesome just the way you are, but if you want to buy some of our stuff, that would be okay. It’s really up to you.” We can feel that way if we want, but we cannot expect it of a company that exists to sell beauty products.

So the question is, does Dove’s ad promote the outer beauty/inner beauty problem stated above? Does their message make this idea – that those two things are intricately linked – worse? Well, I think it could be seen either way.

On one hand, these women do acknowledge that their “prettier” picture looks like a “happier” person. They acknowledge that they have made that connection between outer beauty and inner satisfaction. They admit to feeling this way.

On the other hand, though, Dove is also telling us that we worry too much about it. They are telling us that while we may think that people are noticing our moles or our “chubby” cheeks or our un-groomed eyebrows or our thin lips, they are not. Other people don’t notice like we think they will. If that holds us back (and it holds a lot of women back), we shouldn’t let it.

Sure, Dove’s message may not be the “most important” message that girls or women can hear. Those “most important” messages have to do with becoming the kind of person you want to become – doing and learning and growing and loving. That’s the big stuff. But it isn’t Dove. Dove is beauty products. They are physical appearance. And the message they are sending about physical appearance is not a bad one; it’s one that says “You know all those things you think are ‘wrong’ with you? Well, no one else sees them. If you are one of the many women who is letting those things hold you back, stop it. You are too hard on your physical appearance, and if you let that affect your happiness, like so many women do, you should try to conquer that.”

The problem that message solves may not be as big or as important as other self-image problems that need to be solved, but it is extremely prevalent, at least semi-important, and something that Dove has the ability to impact as a beauty product company. It seems to me that they are doing what they can, with the identity they have, to solve a very real problem.

3) The video made me (and plenty of other women) feel good. 

As I stated before, this is what has made me think so much about this topic. I was emotionally affected by the video, and based on the amount of sharing that’s been going on, so were lots of other people. Should it really be up to us to say, “You shouldn’t like that video, because it doesn’t tell the whole story”?

The fact that the video has had so much impact verifies what I’ve said above: that this is a message that needs to be heard. This is a problem that today’s women have. It might not be up to us to determine if that’s the “right” problem to solve. If Dove solves that problem for one woman, then they’ve taken a step in the right direction. Helping that woman be a little less preoccupied with her physical appearance, a little less worried about other people judging her by her looks, may help her realize what else she can focus on – what else “beauty” means, what really matters to her, and how she can get what matters to her.

The fact that I was moved by this video…well, maybe that means that I struggle with my confidence when it comes to my personal appearance. Is that okay? I think so. I certainly don’t think I’m alone. It’s something I’m working on, you know? And I kind of don’t appreciate someone saying “Well, yeah, but you know you shouldn’t care about being beautiful, right?” I do know. And I wish I didn’t care, but I do. And if something can make me feel better about it, I’ll take it.

No, I’m not going to start buying only Dove products because this video made me feel good. But I can tell you that the same day I saw this video for the first time, I went out in public without having touched my hair the entire day. That’s unheard of for me. And while that may not have been entirely because of the video, well, looking back on it, maybe my perception had changed a little more than I realized. And I’m grateful for that. Please don’t tell me not to be.

***So I know that this negative reaction to the Dove ad also mentioned the issue of race. I don’t know enough about Dove as a company to guess what they might be saying about that with this ad. If it is an issue for their company, it’s a much bigger one than discussion about this one ad could address.

***I also know that the article talked about how the women used in the video are actually pretty good looking, so it wasn’t fair. Well, isn’t that the point? To use women that criticize themselves for flaws we can’t see? They look like lovely people to us, but not to themselves. 


  1. When I read the follow-up article my thought was, "So this is feminism now? Yelling at people trying to tell women they're pretty? Which is something women regularly fell and express angst over? Yep, keep fighting the good fight."

    1. Totally agree. "Feminism," I think, should be about supporting women through whatever challenges they face. It should not be making you feel guilty for caring about anything -- even "shallow" things like your looks.

  2. My favorite part was upon looking at both sketches AND the woman, the "better looking one" that the stranger described, actually resembled the live woman much more closely than her own degraded skewed sketch. The one the stranger saw was the REAL woman. :)

    1. I agree; I thought there was a pretty clear difference between the first sketch and what the woman actually looked like. It made me think about how I would describe myself if I was in that situation. (And the sad part of that was, my initial thoughts were all my flaws.)

  3. Well said and I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure why we have to condemn every positive message because it's not positive enough! On a lighter note though, did you see the parody for men? Totally hilarious!...

  4. You should be published. You are such a good writer. And you are so right on every point. Well done.

    1. You're way too nice, friend. Thanks though!

  5. Hey Katie, you are a really great writer. Just wanted to add something that I learned in a college media course...I'm not sure if I am totally correct on this so feel free to check online and find out for yourself. I am pretty sure that the same company that owns Dove also owns Axe deodurant for men. If you have seen these commercials then you know that they send a totally different message about women. I am not so sure that the company is really concerned with women's feelings.... as much as they are with buying customers and selling products. I actually watched the video and I do think it is a cool way to reach women and help us see that we need to recognize our own beauty. However I'm just not convinced at their sincerity!

    1. Yeah, I believe that Dove and Axe are both owned by Unilever. Axe's commercials are than wholesome, shall we say? :) I'm not sure we can say that the same people are coming up with both campaigns though; I would guess they're still fairly independent of each other (but, of course, I can't be totally sure). And I totally believe that Dove is trying to sell themselves with this ad (and all their advertising), since they're a company and they ultimately want to sell products. I would say though, that (A) just because they are selling something doesn't mean they can't do any good. Lots of very profitable companies have great purposes and do really good things in the world. (B) Even if their intentions are 100% rotten (which I honestly don't think they are), the video was effective and communicated a message well. If the lesson is learned, does it matter who's teaching it, or why? I think the important point is that it might change a woman's perception of herself. Whether or not she extends that to buying Dove's products is up to her.


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