Via Pandagon, I've been reading Seth Stevenson's two reviews on Slate of Dove's "Campaign For Real Beauty" advertising. My reaction to the first "Real Beauty" advertisement I saw was approval of the sentiment, closely followed by basic distrust of advertising. They're doing it to sell stuff. That's all there is to it. People who selflessly promote these ideas out of genuine concern are the ones who take real credit for any good done by the advertising campaign; in furthering the message, Dove is just cashing in on the sentiment that has been created thereby.
However, I was originally also suspicious that the inevitable need to portray some kind of beauty, even if irregularities are allowed, would mean that the images might end up subtly undermining the message. I'm not about to trust that an image is good for women just because it says it is. Stevenson's unfavourable critiques have improved my view of the advertising strategy considerably. He says:
When I first saw one of these smiley, husky gals on the side of a building, my brain hiccupped. Something seemed out of place. Here I was, staring at a "big-boned" woman in her underwear, but this wasn't an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn't supposed to laugh at her. It felt almost revolutionary.
Wow! He got some practice at not laughing at fat girls? Seriously, that's awesome. I mean it. I never even considered that side of the campaign - that men would end up being forced to consider that the definition of beauty might be broader than you think. It seems to have worked, too:
I even have a favorite Dove chick: Stacy (the student). She's the one who poses with her backside to the camera, showing off her ample bottom. I see Stacy every day—she's on the bus stop shelter next to my house. "Check out this fiiiiiiiine bedonkadonk," she seems to say to me, grinning slyly over her shoulder. I think I may have a crush on her. But I've said too much already.
He can't be making all of this up, right? So he's actually thinking of her as sexy, even if he does say that her bottom is 'ample' (It's not. To have a smaller bottom without being noticeably skinny, you'd have to be a man - perhaps the femininity of it forms part of the appeal?).
Alas, his intellectual thinking appears to be less healthy than his sexual reactions on this one. His initial reaction is that advertising like this won't work long-term. Sooner or later, he says, they will have to go back to making women feel inadequate in order to sell things.
[I]n the end, you simply can't sell a beauty product without somehow playing on women's insecurities.
Well, sooner or later, maybe Dove will try a different tack - but I'm betting on later. As Stevenson notes,
Dove's sales have been up since it began.
The campaign won't stop before the effect stops, not if the people making the decision are sensible. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of women buy beauty products to make themselves feel good. It's a way of telling yourself you're special. "Campaign for Real Beauty" is actually only a few steps away from "Because I'm Worth It" - but the Dove campaign lets you feel good about the way you're helping all those other women and girls, as well as letting you feel good because your skin feels clean, or you look a bit prettier, or just because there's been a lot of advertising that promotes the idea of feeling pampered after you've used some sort of beauty product. Beauty has been a "feel good" thing for as long as I can remember, and a "feel good" advertising campaign fits right in.
Part of the reason Stevenson is so far off the mark on this one must surely be because he could never have written the paragraph I wrote above - it requires an understanding of feminine culture which I'm sure he doesn't have. More tellingly, he seems to be allowing his own prejudices into his assessment of an advertising campaign that isn't aimed at him in the first place:
It uses a cheap video camera and murky lighting, and stars an average-looking woman being filmed as she takes a shower. The result bears a queasy resemblance to amateur pornography—though I'm told that even bargain-basement porn features flashier production values and more compelling actresses.
It doesn't look like porn to me. In fact, I'd hazard a teeny-weeny guess that women are less likely than men to automatically associate a naked woman in the shower with porn - particularly when the clip demurely restricts itself to pictures showing no hint of T or A. No, the trouble is that Stevenson expects a hot naked woman, and doesn't understand that this picture isn't aiming for envy - it's aiming for identification, which has got to be another common advertising tactic, right?
So, should we go out of our way to buy their stuff? I have to say, I'm glad that Dove is getting encouragement. If Stevenson's reactions are anything to go by, we need more advertisements like this, whatever the motives behind them. And, as one of the commenters at Pandagon noted, what we're really looking at is a choice between a company that cold-heartedly pushes women's self esteem, and a whole lot of other companies that will just as cold-heartedly set out to make women feel inadequate. So if their soap costs 10p more, I might buy it anyway. Consider it 10p towards bribing the market to work constructively on a social issue for once.