[This post was first published in October of 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.”
It’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.
To 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.”
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.
The “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 relations 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:
“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.
Dove 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.
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Situationist friend and legal scholar Tamara R. Piety has recently written an outstanding law review article that, among other things, discusses and further develops some of the themes highlighted in this post. Her article , titled “Onslaught: Commercial Speech and Gender Inequality,” is forthcoming in Case Western Law Review (2009). The abstract is as follows.
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Utilizing Dove’s infamous “Onslaught” viral ad, this Article explores the ways in which commercial speech constructs images of and attitudes toward women that interfere with full equality for women. Advertising and marketing contribute to creating a social reality in which it is taken for granted that women must spend a great deal of time on appearance and that appearance is of critical importance to life success. As is typical for much advertising, it does this by stimulating anxiety. Such anxiety contributes to low self- esteem, lowered ambitions and stereotype threat reactions, as well as to biased reactions on the part of others. Harms such as these are often justified on the basis of the right of the speaker to participate in public debate or in the public’s right to receive advertising “information.” The Dove ad itself, however, illustrates the problem in locating a “speaker” for commercial speech and raises questions about the nature of the “information” provided by advertising. Because commercial speech lacks an author with moral interests and because it only has informational value when it is true, this Article presents an argument that women’s interest in equality and freedom from harm should outweigh the commercial interests of the speakers, at least to the extent that commercial speech be denied any First Amendment protection beyond that already extended to truthful speech.
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To download Piety’s article for free, 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 a sample of other related Situationist posts, check out “The Marketing Situation of Children,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Prejudice Against the Obese and Some of its Situational Sources,” “Spas and Girls,” and “Fitting in and Sizing up.”
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.