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Selling Soap: Is Dove’s ?Campaign for Real Beauty? a cash-grab or the real deal?

July 1st, 2006     by Nicole Cohen     Issue 9: Issue 9: Breaking the Silence on Violence     Comments

You could say that advertising is soap’s dirty little secret. It started during the colonization of North America, when European settlers wiped Aboriginal populations off the land that is now Canada and the United States. According to Andrea Smith, who wrote Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, in order to justify the elimination of indigenous people, settlers had to construct Aboriginal bodies as “dirty” and “impure.” An ad for Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory soap helped popularize the myth of the “dirty native.” The ad read:

We were once factious, fierce and wild, In peaceful arts unreconciled Our blankets smeared with grease and stains From buffalo meat and settlers’ veins. Through summer’s dust and heat content From moon to moon unwashed we went, But IVORY SOAP came like a ray Of light across our darkened way And now we’re civil, kind and good And keep the laws as people should, We wear our linen, lawn and lace As well as folks with paler face And now I take, where’er we go This cake of IVORY SOAP to show What civilized my squaw and me And made us clean and fair to see.

The ad suggested that Ivory soap “civilized” Aboriginal people, while further fuelling the colonists’ racist ideas about them being dirty and uncivilized. In the mid-19th century, soap companies Pears, Lever, Proctor & Gamble and Kirk’s continued to market their soap as a way to achieve “whiteness,” which was associated in these ads with being gentle, soft and civilized.

Unsurprisingly, soap advertising was also used to tell women how to behave. An essay by a grad student named Patrick Jimenez argues that soap ads promoted traditional gender and family roles. A 1937 Palmolive ad showed a bride and groom on their honeymoon and advised the woman that “romance comes to girls who guard against dry, lifeless … middle age skin,” reminding the happy bride that her marriage was dependent on her preserving her youthful, soft skin. Soap ads directed at women have since made their message a little less blatant, relying instead on visual reminders that it is of utmost importance to stay soft, supple and flawless. Then, in October 2004, one company changed its tune. Dove, which makes soap and other beauty products, launched its global “Campaign for Real Beauty” to appeal to folks tired of seeing unrealistic images of women used in advertising, and to spread a feel-good, feminist-lite message of empowerment.

I caught Dove’s campaign-related travelling photo exhibit at a shopping mall in downtown Toronto last summer. Fifty-eight female photographers had each submitted an image they thought captured female beauty—a group of teenagers carefully applying makeup, a woman standing in the shadows wearing a burka, a girl having her “before” photo taken at summer weight-loss camp, old women, young women, women from around the world. The exhibit was designed to spark a conversation about the meaning of beauty, which, on the surface, it did well: it showed women of different shapes and sizes doing all sorts of activities in front of various backdrops. Every woman who saw the exhibit could likely identify with at least one of the images. It was all very democratic.

The “Wall of Sentiments” featured quotes from viewers. “I love that the photographs capture the real essence of beauty and not what the media throws at us day after day,” wrote one visitor. “Thank you for showing that true beauty is not just a small waist and large breasts, it’s something that comes from within,” wrote another.

Like these visitors, I walked out feeling pretty good, until a Dove employee handed me samples in a blue-and-white box that read: “Beauty has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with care.” That’s pretty great spin, I thought.

Dove is a major brand, owned by Unilever, a multinational corporation that sells food, home and beauty products and that, in May, boasted first-quarter pre-tax profits of almost $1.9 billion. Dove’s new marketing push, which is focused on “real” beauty, is very clever: it has brought the company loads of free publicity as newspaper writers buzz about seeing “real women” being promoted as beautiful.

And it seems that Dove’s commitment to “real” beauty is more than skin deep—the company has set up the Dove Self-Esteem Fund to support programs that boost young women’s self-image. It also made a donation, at the time of the mall exhibit, to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), a great organization concerned with the socio-cultural factors that can influence disordered eating, including the damaging messages of beauty and fashion ads.

Dove even commissioned a study that surveyed 3,300 girls and women aged 15 to 64 in Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US to “explore self-esteem and the impact of beauty ideals on both women’s and girls’ lives.” It’s pretty impressive coming from an industry that’s usually only interested in what shade of red gets women most excited.

The report found that 90 percent of women want to change something about their physical appearance, usually their weight. Sixty-seven percent said their negative body image prevented them from participating in “life-engaging” activities like going to school or speaking out about something. Enraging stuff, and Dove has based its confidence-boosting efforts on this information.

Still—and product pitches at the end of thoughtful photo exhibits are an obvious reminder of this—it’s tough to believe that Dove’s efforts are altruistic. After all, they’re doing this to sell, sell, sell. And when you take a deeper look at the brand, underlying corporate contradictions begin to emerge. Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns the Slim Fast meal-replacement milkshake brand, which encourages people to skip meals to lose weight. That message doesn’t jive with Dove’s “celebration” of women of all shapes and sizes.

And then there’s Axe, another member of the Unilever family. Axe is a line of fragrances for young men described on its website as “coolly seductive,” a brand that has “established itself as the world’s top male grooming brand by coming up with a constant stream of new ideas to keep guys a step ahead in the mating game.” Those new ideas include the over-the-top, overtly sexist “Axe Effect” ads, which feature ultra-thin, hyper-sexualized women uncontrollably lusting after some dude wearing Axe.

I bet you’ll never see a Dove model in an Axe ad. The print-ad component of the Dove campaign has featured the faces and bodies of real women (read: not models) on billboards around the world, selling the idea that this is a brand that cares about the kind of beauty that comes from within. A visit to www.campaignforrealbeauty.ca greets you with: “For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes … we believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages.” A while ago, a series of Toronto ads featured women with so-called flaws you never see in airbrushed ads: freckles, wrinkles, a flat-chested woman and a woman who is actually larger than a size zero. “Ugly spots or beauty spots?” asked the ad featuring a freckled woman. “Wrinkled or wonderful?” asked another.

Many people were pretty impressed that ads were finally featuring women that look less like femme-bots and more like themselves. After all, feminists have been critiquing advertising’s sexist, unrealistic and objectified vision of women for years. As Salon.com writer Rebecca Traister put it, Dove’s campaign was “a little ray of sanity in this anorexic world.”

But can a business that exists solely to make money sincerely promote social change? How excited should we get over a campaign like Dove’s—no matter how socially conscious it appears to be—when at the end of the day, the goal is to move product? In an e-mail interview last summer, Dove masterbrand marketing manager Erin Iles wrote, “The fact is we’re trying to do both. Dove hopes to inspire dialogue and encourage debate about beauty … and educate and inspire women and girls…. We are also in the business of selling personal care products…. We choose to do so in a way that inspires and celebrates women of diverse ages, shapes and sizes, rather than showing them idealized images and telling them they must fit a specific beauty mould.”

Dove’s latest advertising blitz, which appeared in major American cities last summer and in Canada this spring, is titled “Real Women Have Real Curves” (as if we’d forgotten). The ads feature women ranging from size 6 to size 12, wearing nothing but plain white undies and big smiles, looking pretty pleased to be flaunting their bods. Dove says the ads weren’t airbrushed. The American models were recruited while at university, at work or in coffee shops and asked to appear in the ads just the way they were. In Canada, Dove held a casting call for women who wanted to show off their natural bodies—an event that made national news.

I won’t deny that it was exciting to see these gorgeous, diverse women on billboards. Even though this is all just clever marketing, I told myself, it’s still a good thing. But, again, something seemed odd. The taglines for the ads are “Let’s face it, firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge,” and “New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves.”

Firming cream—a product, once again, designed to make women feel bad about themselves so that they’ll buy something they don’t need. Love your curves, we’re told, as long as they’re tight and firm. (And, by the way, firming cream isn’t some magic potion that will give you runner’s legs without the effort. Dove marketing manager Sharon MacLeod even admitted in a press release that “Dove is using these ads to show that using a skin firming product is not about transformation, but rather about taking care of your skin and feeling great about your curves.”) When it comes down to it, the Dove ads and all the buzz they’ve generated keep reminding us that being beautiful is the most important thing a woman can be.

Still, I believe that having positive images of women in the world is important, as long as we cast a critical eye on who’s providing those images and who’s profiting from them. For years, media watchers, activists and regular women have been critiquing the advertising industry for perpetuating negative stereotypes about women’s and men’s bodies and roles in society. So, it seems fitting that cosmetics advertising should be ground zero for change. Dove has the resources to put these images and messages out there where girls and young women can access them—magazines, shopping malls and bus stops.

Merryl Bear, director of NEDIC, agrees. “Change needs to start with all of us,” she says. “We need to challenge the inequities and practices within our institutions that harm the self-esteem and body image of others and ourselves. Companies are part of this.”

Iles tells me Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” and the Self-Esteem Fund are long-term. “There is a great deal of work to be done in changing the way society defines and judges beauty, and Dove aims to be a leading agent of change in this area,” she says. And though I don’t think we need soap ads to tell women they are beautiful, I hope they succeed.


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