Thursday, April 18, 2013

One Narrative Fits All: Dove and "Real Beauty"


A few years ago, the Mad Men marketing team came up with the ingenious idea of building a tool that allowed you to create your own personalized Mad Men–style avatar. And once we found out about it, a good friend and I came up with the ingenious idea of making avatars of each other, along with avatars of ourselves, and then comparing the results. 

Here are—re-created from loose memory—the avatars of my friend. On the left, the one she designed of herself. On the right, the one I designed of her.


^^How my friend "drew" herself // How I "drew" my friend ^^

Notice anything different? 

I thought of our avatar exchange when I first heard about the most recent arm of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, i.e. the campaign that brought us those billboards several years ago of “real women” modeling for Dove, and that launched the viral “Evolution” video about the process that goes into making media images. This particular project featured women describing themselves to a forensics sketch artist—who was separated from the women by a curtain so he couldn’t see them—and then having near-strangers describe the same woman to the same artist. When the results were compared—ta-da!—the sketches drawn from the strangers’ descriptions were conventionally prettier than the sketches drawn from the women’s descriptions of themselves.

It’s an interesting exercise, one I’d love to try myself—if out of narcissism/curiosity more than, as the Dove tagline would have it, finding out that I Am More Beautiful Than I Think. (Maybe I’ll just sign up for Selfless Portraits instead.) It’s intriguing enough, in fact, to make me overcome my knee-jerk “oh, brother” reaction to the Real Beauty campaign to consider exactly why I find myself disgruntled with a campaign that, on its face, shares many of my own goals as far as getting people to question the meaning of beauty.

Yes, the women in these ads are overwhelmingly conventionally pretty, and trim, and white; no, the ads don’t aim to question the essence of beauty standards so much as expand them to include more women; yes, in the process of examining beauty these ads also limit its definition. But not only have other people critiqued these angles more incisively than I could, the truth is, those aren’t my deepest problems with it. My real problem is this: Just as ads of yore leveraged the attitudes that made women feel bad about their looks in order to sell products, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty leverages the response to those attitudes in order to sell products. It allows for exactly one way that women can feel about our looks—bad—and creates a template for women’s relationship with their looks that’s just as rigid as the beauty standard it’s challenging.

But hold on, lady—didn’t you know that only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves? Isn't that problematic? You can find that statistic right on the Real Beauty Campaign’s website—preceded by a statistic about how 72% of girls "feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful." I look at these numbers and ask myself: How many girls now feel tremendous pressure to use the word beautiful to describe themselves? Another unanswered question stemming from those neat statistics: How many girls and women might not use the word beautiful to describe themselves yet still have a generous interpretation of their looks? How many women, when asked to describe themselves to someone they love or trust as opposed to a total stranger, might dare to use kinder words about their looks? How much our hesitation to claim beautiful for ourselves has to do with either a satisfaction with being pretty, or lovely, or striking—or with not wanting to be seen as suffering from “she thinks she’s all that” syndrome?

With our Mad Men avatars, my friend saw herself as being slimmer than I’d “drawn” her. Now, I don’t want to conflate thinness with beauty, but I knew she was somewhat aesthetically unhappy with her weight at the time we did one another’s avatars—so by the very guideline she was looking toward at the time, she depicted herself as being “more beautiful” than I did. It pains me to say that, because I’ve found her beautiful at every size I’ve seen her inhabit, and I’d be saddened if she thought my avatar of her meant anything less than that (which I don’t think it does). But my point here isn’t which avatar was more accurate—after all, none of the three body choices look particularly like her, or like me, or like anyone except perhaps Christina Hendricks. (The bloody mary, of course, is totally on par.) It’s that in an exchange with someone she intuitively trusted with her mental snapshot of herself, she defaulted not to the more conventionally negative image but to the more conventionally positive image. And like I said, we’re talking here about someone who wasn’t terrifically happy with her body; my friend is psychologically healthy but hardly has bullet-proof bodily self-esteem. Yet her experience of herself as relayed to the “sketch artist” of the app wasn’t one of hesitant self-deprecation—an experience we saw nowhere in the Dove sketch artist video.

The Dove campaign has confounded me from the beginning. I’ve alternately felt annoyed by it, touched by it, in simpatico with it, turned off by it, patronizing toward it, and thankful for it. In other words: It is having exactly the effect it’s supposed to have. And that’s what makes it both an effective campaign and a gold mine/red herring for skeptics like me. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, does not exist to make women feel good about themselves; Unilever exists to sell products. That’s fine, that’s their mission—they’re not a therapy center, they’re not a nonprofit (though they do sponsor nonprofit groups that work specifically for girls’ self-esteem)—and at day’s end, whatever my intellectual quibblings, I’d rather have a company trying to meet its mission in a way that’s socially responsible rather than in a way that grasps for the lowest common denominator. But to forget that their goal is to sell products to you, and that all these campaigns exist to generate buzz—call it “start[ing] a global conversation” if you will, it’s the same thing as "buzz"—in order to make you want to buy those products would be a mistake. Hell, by contributing to this “global conversation” here I’m doing unpaid PR for Dove, regardless of what I’m actually saying about their work. (And for Mad Men too, for that matter.) If that sounds cynical, remember that the entire concept of branded content (i.e. what the Dove campaign is, as opposed to a traditional commercial) exists because consumers got tired of regular advertising. And—hold your breath here, folks—female consumers ages 25 to 34 prefer Dove’s “branded content” approach to a traditional ad by a 7:1 margin

I just can’t help but wonder if part of the reason those consumers prefer this approach is not only their own cynicism, but their own imprinting of the idea that women’s greatest challenge in this world is to love their looks. It can be a challenge, yes, of course it can be—an enormous one, one that, without any path outward, can inhibit any of us to the point where we can’t accept any greater challenges. It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? I know it well. For make no mistake through my critique: There’s a part of me that feels fiercely empathetic when I watch the Dove video, and that’s because it’s an ad that gets me where it hurts—for when I’m in that zone, I’m intensely vulnerable. Intense vulnerability is easily recalled in the body; tears sprang to my eyes during the part of the sketch-artist video when the women’s side-by-side portraits were revealed to them. And intense vulnerability that is easily recalled in the body makes for a highly receptive consumer. 

Do I get something out of the Dove campaign? Yes, I do. And Dove will always get more.

13 comments:

  1. I was waiting for your response! Which, of course, was thoughtful and spot-on as always.

    I GET why this campaign and video are problematic for tons of reasons (I've been reading this blog for a while yanno) but my immediate takeaway was positive. More of a "Chillax, Lacy. Stop worrying about your cheekbones all the damn time."

    Maybe I'm just choosing to ignore how this video feeds the strict definition of beauty, etc. but maybe I'm ignoring it because I have to ignore so much of the media I encounter that I'm used to it and it doesn't really bother me that much...?

    So maybe I'm choosing to not spend time focusing on what I don't like about this campaign just like how I'm choosing to not spend time thinking about how my cheekbones could be better. Yes?

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    1. Heh, part of the problem of writing critically about beauty is that there's no way I could just watch the video without my critique glasses on! I wish I could. Certainly my immediate takeaway was on the positive side too--I had a visceral, emotional reaction to it. But it sort of drives me nuts that at day's end, it was an ad that made me feel that way. (Why yes, that is a bee in my bonnet...)

      Ideally women would react the way you are--focusing on the positive takeaway here. Because the fact is, advertising exists and will continue to do so, and it's difficult (impossible?) to opt out entirely--nor is it realistic to try to do so. But Unilever is complicit in the negative things that make us have the reaction we do to a largely positive message, and I'm not quick to forgive!

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  2. Tears sprang to my eyes when I watched the unveiling of the drawings for the exact same reason you describe in that I empathise with these women. At the same time I did think it was off-putting that the adjectives used to describe one another weighed heavily towards the same ol words that Dove is telling us are either unimportant (your beauty is not your identity) or are super important (see you ARE beautiful, silly!) and in the end being drawn thinner and younger looking than they thought they were is still in some sense achieving the goal of looking thin and youthful...which puts us back to square 1.

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    1. And that's exactly it: Unilever depends upon its audience essentially being in square 1. Different wallpaper, maybe, but the same damn square. I don't think the beauty industry is evil or anything, but I also can't ignore that there's an investment on their end of the ready-made consumers that the mind-set of square 1 invites.

      That said, the ad's effectiveness is making me wonder what this multiyear campaign (seven years and running) would look like taken en masse. Perhaps the message is more complex than I'd like to admit!

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  3. The two avatars are interesting. It feels like creating an avatar of yourself is an opportunity to indulge in fantasy. You're doing it for yourself/for fun so there is no worry of looking conceited, the way you might be if asked to describe yourself to a strange man (as in the Dove videos). It also reminds me of using old pictures (from one's younger, thinner, less bald, etc. days) on a dating profile. People may talk like they think they're ugly, but they also want to project a best self. This speaks to your point about X% of women being reluctant or unwilling to describe themselves as "beautiful" -- they may think they are, but not want to deal with the baggage around that term.

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    1. Oh, P.S. I feel like there might be social pressure to be complimentary when describing a stranger. The women in the video (supposedly) didn't know what was going on, why they were being asked to describe this person they just met. For all they knew, the person would hear their description later, so it makes sense that they would say things like "nice eyes." It's a commercial, it's not exactly scientifically rigorous.

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    2. However, the stranger portraits looked more like the women than the self portraits did, in my opinion, so I'm not sure the strangers were just trying to be nice. I also think when we look at other people, we see more than just their features, we see an overall impression generated by their expressions and personality, and that feeds into how we perceive them. Whereas, when we look at ourselves in the mirror, we're not really seeing all that. That's my take anyway!

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    3. Elisa, that's a great point about how this is hardly a study--it has an intent and purpose that it carries out. (Actually, I wonder what would have happened if the sketch artist didn't know what was going on and the women were told to describe themselves in the first person. Presumably as a forensics artist he's able to take his bias out of his work, but he's still human, you know?)

      I feel like we've touched upon this a bit (at "your place," to so speak)--that we're sort of put in this weird spot of putting ourselves down a little bit but also wanting to project our best self. I remember reading somewhere that online dating pictures now skew more to the "realistic" (but still presumably good) because in its earlier days, people were putting up the older (younger, thinner, blah blah) photos of themselves and not really representing who they were today. So collectively we shifted somewhere along the line to accommodate for that tendency.

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  4. With all due respect, an avatar that you select to present to the world is always going to be an embellishment effort. The Dove ad that's making its round at the moment asked a very different question, and had a different goal in mind: It's like asking someone to put together a fantastic resume highlighting all your best skills and achievements, vs. asking someone to "be honest" about how they feel about their work history. You're going to get answers that move into different directions. So your friend will choose to be her own version of the ideal her, whereas your depiction of what she looks like isn't influenced by that desire at all. That both depictions are beautiful tells us a lot about the act of choosing a symbol to best represent you to the world. It's not the same thing as asking someone to describe herself, particularly when you consider that most of us women are raised in a culture which teaches us to value beauty above all else about ourselves, and to try to correct ourselves accordingly where we're also told we're lacking.

    The Dove ads ARE suspect, and of course they're out to sell product by hitting at our emotions--but no one actually has to buy into them whole hog just to see the value behind the ads they're making. What I got from the ad was a very strong illustration of the fact that women do hold themselves back by being so self-critical, and from thinking about ourselves in ways that destroy our self esteem. And this was very effectively illustrated--yes, most of the women used in the ads are slim, white, light skinned, very few minorities....I get it (and part of that might be a result of the demographic they're showing the ad to--we don't know if the ad is "recreated" with a different cast if it's to be shown in a different part of the world). The message, however, was powerfully sent. And I didn't take it as: You're more beautiful than you think you are, so buy our stuff!". The ad was sent to me in an email that was circulated to other women like me, all from a friend we have in common--and I know she sent it because she wanted us all to feel what she thought the ad illustrated, and that was that all of us are more beautiful (in every sense of that word) than we think, full stop. Unilever may sell more because of those ads, but I know I'm not the only one who knows she doesn't have to buy any of it to get any benefit from them.

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    1. AurumGirl, I totally agree with you. I have no urge to go buy Dove/Unilever products now, but viewed the video as its own entity. The women were conventionally pretty, but I think that was powerful too - here are women that already fit into the established beauty standards and even they are highly self-critical. How attractive you feel seems largely independent of what you actually look like. What really gets to me though, is not what the portraits showed, but the expressions on those women's faces when they saw those portraits for the first time. That feeling has really stayed with me, and is independent of the 'ad-ness' of the video. While I might now have a more positive feeling about Dove, at the end of the day I'm going to apply logic to my purchases ad buy products that have high reviews and are effective for me.

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    2. AurumGirl, excellent point about the difference between creating an avatar vs. asking for a realistic description of oneself--the aims are different so it's not truly comparable. But I think the storyline holds true to a point: The Dove ads are making an assumption that women see themselves in a more negative light than a stranger would. I'm thinking of the sinking feeling I get whenever a friend says that a photo of me is great while I think I look terrible in it--it's like, Oh wait, I'm actually overestimating my beauty! I do the opposite too, of course, but I also know that if I were doing this exercise (and weren't out to make a point...) that I'd probably be more critical in my self-description than I would be without an "audience," so to speak. Whatever self-esteem issues I might have around my looks jockeys for attention with the fear of seeming conceited, and I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

      The Dove campaign is well-known enough at this point that I do think they're conceiving of these videos as a sort of PSA/public service sort of thing--I'm guessing that there are very few women who are consciously like, "Oh, now I'm going to buy Dove" after seeing these ads. But this sort of branded content is dependent upon generating goodwill. Does that mean that goodwill isn't real? No; its viewers potentially get something valuable for a very small investment (three minutes). But that doesn't mean it's not still advertising, which by definition we have to look at critically.

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    3. Monkey, such an interesting point about the message Dove sends by specifically choosing pretty women for this. Some critics have said that that detracts from the point, and part of me agrees--but the fact is, most women in the right light are going to be pleasant-looking, you know? It's how faces are made! The women chosen were indeed pretty, but they also look like normal everyday people. That drives home a different point than would be made by choosing women with highly irregular features or whatever. I'd love to see that point made! But I don't think that was the goal here, and it needn't be.

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  5. Us, women should be more confident and we must accept our own looks if we want to feel real happiness. I think that accepting our beauty would make us glow, making us appear even more beautiful in the eyes of other people. Do not live in a life filled with insecurities. Life is just short so let us celebrate life and all the simple things we have.

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