The road to sell is paved with “good intentions”

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In 2004, Dove began what was called the “Real Beauty” campaign, which strove to undermine the monolithic image of beauty as presented by modern media and  “help develop girls’ self esteem from a young age, so they have the confidence to feel happy in themselves and reach their full potential.” Dove created ads featuring women of various ages and skin tones, usually accompanied by a version of the byline, “We see beauty all around us.” The mission statement – while commendable – is inherently flawed: it assumes that self esteem hinges singularly on beauty, further perpetuating the image-obsession that it claims to wish to defeat. Pictures of attractive women are coupled to pejorative taglines; in one, a Native American woman is portrayed beside two “checklist” descriptions: “dark?” or “dazzling?” The ad implies that only one box can be checked – that we live in a zero-sum world where one cannot be both dark-skinned and “dazzling.”

Below the stark adjectives, in very small print, Dove asks a  ‘thought-provoking’ rhetorical question: “How long will we go on believing that only fair skin is beautiful?” This seems to have been inserted to transform a blatantly discriminatory ad into a stimulus for “the beauty debate.” The campaign has indeed fostered debate, but not about standards of beauty. Critics lambast Dove’s continuing emphasis on external attributes as a woman’s defining characteristic,  while the campaign’s defenders claim that featuring slightly more voluptuous women in the advertisements expands the bounds of acceptable beauty. Recently, Dove released a video called “Real Beauty sketches”, which went viral on social media. The ad featured women being asked questions about their facial characteristics by a sketch artist, who then proceeded to depict them according to the women’s description of of themselves. A stranger with whom the women had interacted then described the woman to the sketch artist, providing an alternate frame of reference. At the end of the video, the two sketches were juxtaposed, revealing – surprise, surprise – that the women were far more critical in their perception of themselves than was the stranger, prompting the ostensibly uplifting conclusion that “you are more beautiful than you think.” The video attracted a denunciation of Dove’s campaign and reiterated concerns that Dove is promulgating an unhealthy preoccupation with external appearance.

Dove’s campaign makes beauty a focal point of attractiveness while simultaneously claiming to unfetter women from their body fixation. Yes, it’s hypocritical – but there is no cause for indignation. Dove is a company. As a company, its main incentive is profit through the sale of beauty products to its target demographic – women. Through its “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove – behind the veneer of social betterment – emphasizes the importance of appearance, motivating women to buy Dove products to ostensibly improve that appearance.

The “Real Beauty” campaign is completely justified in marketing terms, but is it right? Companies have exploited consumer insecurity for centuries, but to do so under the pretense of reducing insecurity seems malign.

Still, Dove is not unique in this regard. Dove’s campaign underscores a growing trend in the corporate world: what I call ethiconsumerism. The prominence of social and environmental interest groups and burgeoning global activism has led to a new style of advertising, one that doesn’t promote a product as much as a policy. Starbucks is an exemplar in this respect – recently, its advertisements have not capitalized on the taste or appeal of its coffee but rather on the ‘responsibility’ of the company. A large portion of the Starbucks website is dedicated to informing visitors of Starbucks’ commitment to “ethics” and “global responsibility.”

What Starbucks – and Dove – hope is that people will choose their products on the basis of their policy, that it doesn’t matter which coffee tastes better, or which lotion is smoother, but that these companies are – superficially – caring, giving organizations.

So far, it’s worked. Consumers – rather, ethiconsumers – pride themselves in supporting such noble corporate campaigns, convincing themselves that each time they buy a Starbucks Frappuccino or a Dove shampoo, they are contributing to the greater good, if only incrementally.

This is the cause of my indignation. Ethiconsumerism is ludicrous – oxymoronic, even. There is no morality in consumption.

If you want coffee, go to Starbucks.

If you want to do good, order two, and give one to the lady next to the supermarket selling the Big Issue. She looks like she needs a warm drink.


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