The Situationist

Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!

Posted by Jon Hanson on October 21, 2007

Several weeks ago, as part of its much lauded “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” Unilever released “Onslaught,” a video (above) examining disturbing images of women in beauty-industry advertising. The video ends with this admonition to parents: “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

Dove Self-Esteem Page ImageIt’s a powerful video with a disturbing collection of images. The situation of our daughters — and, by the way, our sons — seems both overwhelming and diabolical. Read the comments about the film on the Dove website discussion board, and you can feel the love and gratitude that viewers, particularly mothers, feel toward Dove for this film.

Skimming the first ten comments, one finds these reviews and remarks:

“This is a POWERFUL little film for sure”; ” I love the message behind the Dove movies/ads”; “I applaud Dove once again”; ” I think this film is wonderful!”; “I applaud Dove for launching their campaign of what beauty really is”; “Kudos to DOVE for taking a stand”; “My reaction to ‘Onslaught’ is that I want to cry”; and “Thank you for launching this campaign as it is way overdue.”

There’s a problem that is easily lost when one contemplates the impressive production that “Onslaught” represents and the possibility that at least some corporations just may be our friends — the kind of friend who cares about our kids and who we can trust to help teach our children the valuable messages about what “real beauty” is and about the traps and dangers of our shared environment.

No, there are actually several problems.

Onslaught ImageTo begin with, although Dove claims to “provide[] a refreshingly real alternative for women who recognise that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes,” even the Dove models seem to fit quite comfortably within a slightly expanded perimeter of conventional conceptions of beauty. The young girls, for instance, who represent “our children” in the film “Onslaught” are exceptionally attractive children even by commercially influenced cultural standards.

The same is true for the models in the Real Beauty campaign — yes, there is variety, but the variety is measured in small deviations around an average that is itself only a tiny enlargement of the single standard of beauty given to us by those other beauty products. In other words, Dove’s claim that beauty comes in “all shapes and sizes” seems to mean that beauty comes in “a few more shapes and sizes — particularly if the women are laughing and playing together in their underwear.”

Dove Models Real Beauty Campaign

What is the implicit message to those girls and women who don’t measure up to even the “lowered” Dove standard? And what is the message of these particular images — where groups of young women reveal their “inner beauty” by standing in their underwear touching, rubbing, and giggling?

There may be another even more troubling feature of these ads. Telling parents to “talk to [their] daughters before the beauty industry does,” is equivalent to telling parents to teach their children how to float in thin air before gravity gets to them. The beauty industry “talks” to our children either directly or indirectly at virtually every waking moment, and, I suspect, during many of our children’s dreams. If you don’t agree, just watch “Onslaught” again. Those images set the beauty standard not simply for the young girls who strive to slim down and measure up, but also of their friends and families and society at large. Those cultural expectations and pressures enmesh our children even when the ads and posters are briefly out of sight.

Parents fortunate enough to have the time, energy, and resources to “talk to their children” meaningfully and consistently about “real beauty” might be able to hold their children up against the force of gravity for a brief spell. Eventually, though, the “onslaught” of commercial images and messages will take its toll. After all, the barrage is incessant, multidirectional, and credible. Existing beauty standards matter in the lives of those who do, and those who do not, meet them. A parent’s words are among the least frequent, least credible, and least relevant words that their adolescent children will hear, particularly when it comes to questions of beauty and social acceptance among their peers. In fact, by even focusing on the problematic standards of beauty that their children face, parents risk underscoring and strengthening the power of that standard.

Ideas for Moms and Mentors Websiste ImageThe “Onslaught” video may itself have that effect by bringing into relief the current unforgiving and unrealizable standard of beauty that now dominates our culture. Thus, while the “Onslaught” video urges parents to “talk to your daughters,” it probably should add “but don’t show them this video” which all-too-clearly highlights the undernourished and oversexualized prototypes of “beauty.”

A parent’s task is made that much more difficult by the fact that commercial marketing is not simply teaching our children about the importance and meaning of “beauty,” it is also pitting parents and kids against one another — from encouraging children to “nag” for more stuff to undermining the credibility and authority of parental limits or advice. (For fascinating and detailed accounts of the consumerist kidnapping, you can read Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids or Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy — if time permits, both are worth reading. For an excellent website covering these topics, visit the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.)

Do not misunderstand: I accept that some parents may be able to make some difference — or, as a parent of three, I hope that is true. My point is that parents are competing against a force that is far larger than any one of us, a force not of our choosing.

As Cornel West and Sylvia Ann Hewlett have written:

[S]imply heaping blame on overburdened moms and dads will not solve our problems. Modern-day mothers and fathers, like those before them, struggle to put children at the center of their lives. But major impediments and obstacles stand in their way, undermining their most valiant efforts. From early in the morning till late at night, America’s parents are battered by all kinds of pressures, most of which are not of their making.

It seems peculiar, therefore, that Dove would offer a film demonstrating the ubiquitous attack of the beauty industry that ends with the suggestion to parents that they are the ones to make a difference by simply talking to their kids. If the industry is the problem, it strikes me as odd that the parents are supposed to be the solution.

“Peculiar?” “Odd?” Maybe the word “suspicious” is a better fit. Telling parents to talk to their children is not unusual as a public relationsPhilip Morris Talk to your Kids; They’ll Listen strategy. For instance, Philip Morris, among other companies, has long been pushing that message in its “public service” ads, particularly since the industry began to face a real threat of tort liability in the 1990s. The message seems public-spirited, but most industry analysts believe that Philip Morris is delivering, not a public-service message to parents, but a responsibility-shifting message to the public: kids smoke because of uninvolved or irresponsible parents, not because of anything that Philip Morris has done. (For a discussion of how the fast food industry has engaged in similar attribution-shifting tactics, you can link to an article by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, David Yosifon, and me by clicking here.)

To add to my suspicions, many of the comments on the Dove website indicate that those who watch the video are concluding that the problem created by the beauty industry should be solved by parents — as if the industry conduct is immutable and the key variable to protecting our children is the presence or absence of good parenting.

Here is a sample of comments — again, from the first ten on the Dove website discussion page:

“I do NOT condone the way a lot of families allow their children to become obese”; “[S]hame on their parents for letting this affect their child”; “The media is not totally to blame”; “I do believe that it is the job of the parent to their daughters. I have read articles describing girls at 16 and younger getting plastic surgery and breast augmentation. What’s wrong with those parents??”; “it all starts in the home and with the kind of role model a mother is to her daughter”; and “I do agree that it is up to parents to educate children about what is right and what is wrong.”

If Dove were attempting to shift responsibility to parents for the “beauty” preoccupation of adolescent girls, it seems to be working. But, still, why would Dove do that?

One plausible answer is that they wouldn’t. Dove is selling soap, not tobacco. Any suspicions that one might have about the Philip Morris campaign do not translate easily to the message of the “Onslaught” video. To be sure, Dove may be criticizing the rest of the beauty industry and its standards to maximize its own profits; expressing concern (genuine or not) about our children might be a saavy route to getting our dollars. Selling “real beauty” instead of “commercialized beauty” seems a brilliant strategy for distinguishing Dove products form those of its competitors and for attracting that group of consumers who fancy themselves beautiful, but who want to reject the standards of “unreal beauty” set by those other beauty product ads. The returns indicate that this plus-sized marketing strategy has been immensely profitable. But that sort of profit-seeking does not seem particularly nefarious. As one commenter on the Dove website puts it:dove-model.jpg

“Good for Dove to tackle the ‘real beauty’ of women. As a former, public relations professional it’s hard for me not to be cynical of the company’s dollar-driven agenda, but I’m moved by the campaign and hopeful that others will follow suit in responsible social marketing.”

If it’s profitable for Dove to push meekly against the tide of commercial messages, more power to them, right? Philip Morris, in contrast, is attempting to shift blame that otherwise would be placed on them through law suits, legislation, and regulation or through reduced consumption by an angry public. Dove does not face those potential costs or public relations problems, so why would they want to shift responsibility from the beauty industry toward parents?

The second plausible answer is more troubling.

Dove is not, as most people seem to imagine, a company devoted to helping parents and their children in their battles against the polluting and quasi-pornographic images and messages of commercialized beauty products. Dove is not a person, and Dove is not a friend.

vaseline-ad.jpgDove is a brand — one member of a “family” of brands owned by the company Unilever. If Dove were a person, then, Unilever would be its parent. And, in light of that relationship, the question is, not whether Dove would have an incentive to shift responsibility to parents for the practices of the beauty industry, but whether Unilever would. Is Unilever acting responsibly by doing its part to stem the “onslaught”? If not, is it possible that that is because Unilever has the same sort of incentive that Big Tobacco has for shifting responsibility to others for the consequence of their own culpable conduct?

When one gives some thought to that question, the “real beauty” campaign begins to look a little ugly.

Unilever, as a company, seems uninterested in expanding our conceptions of beauty, much less in helping parents confront the problem of beauty-industry marketing. Unilever is not part of the solution; in fact, Unilever — one of the largest manufacturers of cosmetics, skin lighteners, diet products, and the like — may be one of the worst offenders.

A previous Situationist post has already detailed some of the ways that Unilever helps to set and reinforce harmful beauty standards with its products and marketing. (See “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”) But there is more to say . . . or show.

In fact, the cascade of objectifying images in the “Onslaught” video seem surprisingly tame when compared to some of the actual ads for other Uniliver products. Consider, for example the following two ads for Lynx body spray, a male deodorant that seems to promise more than just deodorizing (indeed, the product slogan is “Spray More. Get More”):

According to the Dove website, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty.” Apparently Unilever has a different global vision. To learn more about the global “Lynx Effect,” check out this ad:

Unilever’s other body spray, Axe, is no better, as the following videos illustrate:

What are those ads if not an onslaught? The Dove website explains that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve.” Elsewhere, the website describes the pressure on young women this way:

“The comparisons are non-stop, especially among girls who see rich, beautiful young women in the media and want to be just like them. Dissatisfaction with body image increases as girls move into adolescence, according to a 2000 study by the Girl Scout Research Institute. Although 75 percent of 8- and 9-year-old girls in the study said they like their looks, only 56 percent of those ages 12 and 13 did. And of the 33 percent of girls ages 14-17 who said they’re too fat, two-thirds were dieting. Ninety percent of eating disorders are diagnosed in girls.”

Ummm. Good point.

But if the problem is sexualized stereotypes and unhealthy body types, then why is Dove telling parents to “talk to their kids before the beauty industry does”? Shouldn’t Dove be talking to its parent about not talking to our kids? Why would we applaud the arsonist when he passes out pamphlets on how to fight fires? Why buy mousetraps from the same person who dumped rodents into our basement? Should we not judge Dr. Jekyll in part by the sins Mr. Hyde?

If Dove cares about “real beauty,” it should start at home. If Unilever doesn’t care about “real beauty” it should stop getting rich off the illusion that it does. And if the beauty industry is the source of the onslaught, then Unilever, through Dove advertising, should not be permitted to blame the victims for its own contribution to that attack.

* * *

To read a New York Times article discussing the seeming contradiction in Unilever’s marketing strategies, click here. To read a Los Angeles Times article on the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s criticism of the Unilever contradiction, click here. For a previous Situationist post highlighting some of the uglier beauty messages of Unilever, see “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.” For a post discussing the situational causes and consequences of beauty, see “Survival of the Cutest.” For other related posts, check out “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” “Spas and Girls,” and “Fitting in and Sizing up.”

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23 Responses to “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!”

  1. [...] Situationist rips this defense into teeny-tiny soap-flake pieces in Hey Dove, Talk to Your Parent! (a title so good, I’m going to hire these guys for my new blog). And to my [...]

  2. Two Knives said

    Thanks for this fantastic post. So many women are afraid to criticize the Onslaught video because they are grasping for any bit of hope they can get. I hope this helps more of them see right through it.

  3. [...] they have to be prepared for some scrutiny. Two Knives has recommended a very good post over at The Situationist, also hating this [...]

  4. [...] Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent! – The Situationist “if the problem is sexualized stereotypes and unhealthy body types, then why is Dove telling parents to “talk to their kids before the beauty industry does”? Shouldn’t Dove be talking to its parent about not talking to our kids?” (tags: advertising beauty gender) [...]

  5. Natalie said

    I’ve always found the Dove ads a little off. I mean, they claim to have this “Campaign for Real Beauty” thing going on, but I have yet to see a Black model with really kinky, natural hair. Most of the women on the Dove hair commercials are either white, and have straight, wavy, or curly hair. I haven’t seen too many…. now that I think of it, I haven’t seen ANY black hair models?

    One thing that I have found out is that the beauty industry will do anything to make us think that they’re looking out for our best interest by putting a couple of plus sized and Black models in their ads when these models fall into what the standard of beauty is for them.

    Speaking of real beauty, and real women, where are the Asian women, the Hispanic women? I mean, come on Dove. Before you start priding yourself on your “Campaign for Real Beauty”, you need to think about all of the other women you’re leaving out. I have no problem with plus sized models, But there’s more out there besides White plus sized models. When you don’t add Asian, Hispanic, or even Black hair models, then you are joining in on the assault on real beauty just like the rest of the media is.

  6. [...] Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent! [...]

  7. [...] arm swinging full tilt at the absurdity of the Unilever contradiction, insightful blogs like The Situationist and Healthbolt have expanded the dialogue and commentary even [...]

  8. Mary Anne said

    Where are the women of colour, women with disability, women who are not so symmetrical. Just wondering. So where indeed are the women who ride the bus with me or who I see at work.

  9. Obinna said

    I think what you are saying is the some of the dumbest bullshit I have ever heard. How dare you shift the blame from a parent to the beauty industry. The problem with America is people like you, want to blame big busines and the government for all its problems. As a African American male, with Nigerian born parents, I KNOW it starts with the parents. Why are some girls obsessed with their outward appearance and some girls not. Why did my sisters turn out different than their closest friends? Growing up you have exposure to the same exact influences as your peers. The only difference is your upbringing which starts with your parents. I do not care for Dove, but they are right if parents do not start making an impact in their children’s lives you better believe somebody else will.

  10. The only thing being pretty ever got me was F@#KED.

    Dove saturated my brain with the many sexy images that flashed so quickly. We are supposed to feel that they are against that kind of advertising.

    They got to have the “selling shots” flashed and then the “wholesome shots”. Good girl, bad girl.

  11. [...] read the entire article, click here. To read previous posts quoting Susan Linn, see “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” and “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged [...]

  12. Lily said

    REAL BEAUTY, is beauty from within.

    We are no better than the industries that define what beauty is if we ourselves judge what beauty should be.

    Beauty is having confidence of who you are and what you stand for- a secured girl who has this, does not care what the trends are. Think about it, when you come across a really attractive person, then you find out that he or she is just a nasty person, do you think that person is still pretty? the answer is most likely no. Beauty is more than appearances folks and someday DOVE will send that message to the world INSTEAD of postering bigger woman as the new trend.

  13. FL said

    You really need to lighten up about the Axe ads which actually poke fun at traditional ads for men’s products that promise men they’ll get the sexiest women if they use their products. But then again, women’s studies have an awful lot invested in the idea women will have nervous breakdowns if they so much as look at a picture of a woman prettier than they are. (Don’t even bother bringing up anorexia; it’s a serious disorder that nonetheless only affects a very small number of girls who typically have demanding, upper middle class parents).

  14. Ken Z. said

    Real men dont need Axe. Anyways, wonderful work.

  15. rammkatze said

    I’m surprised how manny commenters here missed some of the main points made by the author. I for one laugh really had at almost every single Axe commercial.

    But then again, the attack on the Axe ads is pointing at the hypocrisy of the company who sells both the impossible beauty standard AND the campaign agains that said beauty standard.

    I’m also not one of the women who go around screaming that the publicity is putting a lot of pressure on me. I have a BMI of 35,2 and I don’t hate models. They’re not to blame that I’m fat. They never tied me to a chair and force fed me. They never looked down on me from an outdoor and said “I’m way better than you.”, I usually get a “this lingerie is sexy!” or something like that.

    I’d love to kiss your feet for this post, man! I found out about it while googling for dove ads as research for a post on my blog against such campaign! My first reaction to the very first Dove ad I saw on “real beauty” (some cream against cellulitis) was a big grin and a “nicely plaid…”. Not surprisingly, the Dove had a profit of +600% that year! What really is ingenious is how Dove picks up the only thing harder to find than a very thin girl – which is a fat girl with no cellulitis – and manages to throw sand in the eyes of so many cellulitis-troubles women into buying their products. Because these women feel flattered and don’t realize that just like in an ad for cellulitis products with a skinny model whose legs never seen celullitis her whole life, the legs of those “fat” models also never seen celullitis once in their whole lives, and it was not thanks to Dove that they got rid of something they never had!

    And then it just went on and on and on and I could kill Dove, because more than selling “Real beauty”, the slogans made it look like a campaign more like “Lookit us! We’re so cool because we don’t use skinny women!”. Dove makes a video about photoshopping in ads and tries to make us believe that every pretty ad-face is a photoshopped regular face, like I’m that naive! And like there are no natural pretty faces but the ones on their campaigns. Dove photoshops every picture too – fat chicks with no stretchmarks? Why, that’s even rarer than fat chicks with no cellulitis!

    Anyway, I’m saving further rants for my blog entry and leave you here a big kudos! I will defenitely mention this post on my blog!

  16. tamara said

    And why does beauty matter so much for women anyway that it should be a topic for our daughters? THAT is the big assumption behind all of this – the thing that is taken for granted as a fact of the world and which Dove and many observers would like to absolve advertising in creating, recreating, reinforcing and reconstituting.

  17. Speaking of real beauty, and real women, where are the Asian women,

    You know, I was wondering that too Natalie, until I realized as I looked around me in Japan, that most Asian women would look incredibly slender next to the women in this ad. As many of you already say that these women are too slender AS IS, I think adding an Asian woman would have just looked like they were re-inforcing the “slender” ideal. The Asian man next to me took one look at the women in this ad and said, “Wow, they are VERY fat, ne?” and smiled. Interestingly enough he meant it as a good thing.

  18. Carrie said

    You know, I believe the entire “beauty” idea isn’t something we can actually control. It comes from ancient history and shall remain an important subject, silly as it may seem, for as long as we probably can imagine. The grand problem nowadays is that the entire definition has slanted too much towards the anorexic side, making adolescents today believe they HAVE to be nearly boney to fit into the standards. And, though families have the obligation to teach their children that the “real” beauty comes from within, this is also something that escapes our grasp. As much reinforcement a child or teenager might have from their home, we all know that there are CRUEL kids in school just waiting for their next prey, as well as the child’s own need to resemble his companions. If 90% of the kids in school are stick thin, then there’s a high chance that the well-fed, not even chubby, shall want to be so, too.

    I believe Dove is just a brand trying to make money, using all smart tactics possible, and, if it was necessary to attack a younger audience, then so it did. I do agree, though regarding the Axe subject. Though they’re funny, they represent, first, the completely machist society that can’t let go of the thought that just any guy can(and has to) get the “perfect”(on the outside) woman. It’s ridiculous that Dove has an anti-stereotype campaign, and one that reinforces stereotypes.

    Beauty is considered, by most, in the end, to be something that comes from within, but, we all live in a shallow society, led by people like Paris Hilton, supposedly pretty, but a repulsive, egotistical brat.

    BTW, I find it oddly disturbing, that Dove flaunts its beauty campaign so proudly, when it is a company that tests its products on animals, something that to many means nothing, but results proof of their own “inner beauty”.

  19. [...] Dove Campaign for Real Beauty October 4, 2009 — terry33 Jon Hanson has written an excellent takedown of the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty”. [...]

  20. [...] Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent! (by Jon Hanson) [...]

  21. Liza said

    I would like to personally thank everyone involved in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. They have challenged the stereotypical image of women and celebrated age, ethnicity and different body types. The message that they have been sending is so different than the usual “you have to be young, beautiful, thin, and white to be a woman” message that one hears from the media. This campaign is so empowering to women. It is telling us that you are perfect the way you are; don’t change for anyone and it is such a breath of fresh air to finally hear someone speaking out. So thank you for your positive message; it is truly making a difference in many lives!

  22. "Real Beauty" said

    I don’t understand exactly what Dove means by real beauty. “You’re perfect the way you are; don’t change for anyone.” That is a load of shit. No one is perfect but women just don’t sit there saying, “I was born this way and I’m fine with it.” Or other bullshit along those lines the only reason people are fat is because they accept it. Don’t ever say it’s just genetics because that’s just an ignorant thing to say; sure your genes are going to have an affect on your body type but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with what you got, I don’t mean get lipo-suction, implants, or some fucking surgery, you know why? Because that’s false satisfaction – you need to exercise and eat healthy. They say pride is a sin but it’s not, pride is a virtue, it’s self-respect, it is your self image. People say if you’re fat and confident it’s great, but it’s not, that’s vanity. You’re just a smug bitch or son of a bitch walking around with a false sense of accomplishment. Everybody gets the figure and physique they deserve. Pride yourself on the body you want when you finally get it because then that’s something to be proud about. Pride is a virtue but you have to earn it.

  23. Kieran said

    Really no matter if someone doesn’t know afterward its up to other users that they will help, so here it happens.

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