Advertising has a tendency
to reinforce stereotypes. It encourages conformity, because when you can persuade the Every Woman or the Every Man, you can persuade hundreds of thousands of people at once. It can be refreshing, then, when ads challenge stereotypes rather than enforce them. And so it is the case with the Dove Real Beauty.
A group of women sat around the strategy table, lamenting the unrealistic portrayal of female bodies in advertising and intuitively believing that other women felt the same. Interviews with feminists Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem confirmed their beliefs: advertising needs to challenge conventional stereotypes of beauty. But advertising must first and foremost sell a product, and challenging stereotypes would be huge risk. So they commissioned a global study comprising over 3000 women and their suspicions were confirmed: only 2 per cent of women considered themselves beautiful, while a whooping 81 per cent felt advertising portrayed unrealistic beauty standards.
The idea was almost on the cards, they had just one last obstacle to overcome: convincing their male colleagues. And so one women put it into perspective for them: “Imagine thinking every day that your dick isn’t big enough. Men just aren’t surrounded by images that make them feel deeply insecure.” And with that one penis-analogy, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was born.
Looking at the health and beauty market, they saw brand after brand using the same tactic to sell anti-aging products: the promise of Miranda Kerr-esque beauty. But
Dove's research suggested the market was out of touch with the target audience – middle-aged women. The idea that anti-aging cream could make you look 20 was absurd, and women knew it.
It was a huge risk using real women to advertise, but it was now a risk supported by solid research and startling consumer insight. Dove was in a unique position to a sell a more positive message because they already had a caring, down-to-earth image. They had historically positioned themselves as a sort of mother figure – L’Oreal, for example, would have been taking a much larger risk trying to sell Real Beauty. Their products, nor their image, would not have allowed for it.
The campaign centred around this billboard:
Placed in Times square, it shows real women looking happy in their skin. It's tone is energetic and confident – 'real beauty', it seemed to say, is in again.
So was Dove’s campaign positive for women?
Their objectives were not only to generate sales, but also to debunk the stereotypical definition of beauty. Such an altruistic objective seems at odds
with advertising’s central purpose, but underneath the surface it's pure strategy. By extending a warm hand to their target audience, Dove positioned itself as the only beauty brand that cared about women. The irony was that by doing this, their ultimate goal was exactly the same as the competitors they scolded – profits.
Many feminists critiqued Dove for practicing what they preached. Meredith Nash, a sociology lecturer at the University of Tasmania said, “The campaign is troubling because Dove asks women to accept the myth that there is such a thing as “real beauty” and that achieving it is important for women. However, women can only achieve self-acceptance and a positive body image as consumers of Dove products.”
She argued that Dove was still emphasizing women’s looks as all-important. By constructing a “real beauty” image – which undoubtedly left out many body types/races/weights – and connecting it to their product, Dove was still asking women to conform through consumption.
This is post-feminism – the idea that consuming is empowering to women. It’s about the individual, a push away from the
collective efforts of