Published in the Summer 2006 issue • Features
Is Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” a cash-grab or the real deal?
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.