You know those tear-jerking Dove ads? They don’t wash with me

An online advertising campaign wants to show that women are too self-critical – but why is beauty seen as so important?

Weekend Review April 2013. Dove Real Beauty Sketches.

Weekend Review April 2013. Dove Real Beauty Sketches.


Have you seen the latest online ad for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty? You cried, didn’t you? Maybe not choking sobs; it might just have been a rogue tear that escaped from the corner of your eye. But I bet you wept all the same.

If you haven’t seen it, the latest piece of tear-mongering from the soapy masters of shameless exploitation (more of which later) features a group of “real” women having their portraits drawn by an FBI-trained forensic artist, accompanied by gentle piano music.

The women are behind a curtain, so the artist can’t see them: he relies on their descriptions of themselves. Then another woman – or, on one occasion, a man – comes in and takes the seat.

She describes the woman who has just left, whom she met for the first time earlier that morning. Based on her description, the artist draws a second portrait of the same subject. You see where this is going, don’t you?

Sure enough, three minutes later, there’s a 10 Years Younger -style denouement, when the women get an opportunity to compare the two impressions of themselves.

The portraits are clearly of the same person, but there’s a noticeable difference. The first is lifeless and sour-looking; the second is fresher, more radiant and, well, better looking. In every case, the portrait relying on the stranger’s description is far more flattering than the one based on the woman’s description of herself.

There are tears. There are shy smiles. There is a little laughter. All that’s missing are Gok Wan and the applauding family members. Calling it an ad probably isn’t doing it justice. Time magazine describes it as a short documentary. Dove calls it a compelling social experiment.

30 million views
Since it was launched online, earlier this month, it has been watched about 30 million times on YouTube.

I first came across it on Facebook, where friends were sharing it, along with messages like, “For all my gorgeous women friends – you’re all beautiful,” and, “Everyone needs to see this.”

I watched it, I had a little snivel and then I shared it with my followers on Twitter.

But, afterwards, I couldn’t get out of my head the feeling that I had been done. I watched it again, and then I realised why it made me feel so uneasy. It is true that women can be self-critical, and anything that makes us stop and focus on the good stuff is to be applauded.

But the subtext of this ad is not just that, as the strapline goes, you’re probably more beautiful that you think; it’s also that “real” women don’t say boastful things like, “I think I have nice eyes,” or, “I’m lucky enough to have good skin.”

Nice girls, goes the message in the ad, don’t brag about their looks: they focus on their “big foreheads”, their “fat faces” and their “protruding jaws”.

I’ve got news for you, Mr Dove. (I would say Ms Dove, except I looked it up and he’s a Mr. Of course he is. Hello, Paul). We’re not all writhing masses of self-loathing. Most of the women I know have, by the time they are in their 30s, come to terms with how they look.

They might not love that wobbly bit of skin that sticks out at the top of their jeans, or the line of spots along their jawline, but they might quite like themselves anyway.

They might not rejoice at what they see in the mirror at 7.30am, but they do not let themselves be defined by it.

The other thing that’s irritating about the ad is that the women in the film may not be supermodels, but they would all make pretty successful catalogue models.

They’re not wearing much make-up, but, even so, you can see they have symmetrical features, clear skin, slender bodies and great hair. Only one of them is older than 40. None of them is overweight.

They may be “real”, but they’re certainly not average. Dove, it turns out, has quite a narrow view of female beauty. Its parent company, Unilever, came under fire in 2010 when it launched a Facebook app in India that allowed users to whiten their skin. The app was launched to coincide with a range of skin-whitening products for men.

So the message that you are more beautiful than you think might be a good one, but its impact is somewhat diminished when Dove implies that “beauty” means something specific, exclusively physical and absolutely critical to human happiness.

It’s this last part that bothers me most. At the end of the video one of the women says, “I should be more grateful for my natural beauty. It impacts the choices in the friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

At this point I had to stop the video and scroll back, just to make sure I’d heard it right. I double-checked to make sure she wasn’t referring to self-esteem.

In the original interview she might have been, but, by the time the video emerged from the edit suite, Dove makes it clear it believes she is talking about looks: looks that affect not just your job but also the friends you make and even how you treat your children.

The medium might have become more cunning, but the message is just the same. Beauty is the most important attribute a woman can have, it implies, the only one that matters.

If you are a woman, it affects every aspect of your life – even how you mother your children, it says. “It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” Now, go buy yourself a bar of soap.

The Dove sketches are here

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