26 April 2013

"Real Beauty"

Source: Dove

Jess's Classics 2.0 post made me want to explore the subject of body image a little further. Is society subconsciously imposing a standard on us via media channels surrounding us, or even peer remarks on our bodies, as I explored in my last post on the subject? Gathering material on the subject to form the most accurate opinion possible, I stumbled upon Dove's marketing campaign, "Real Beauty".

As I am both a woman interested in my own self esteem and body image, but also a marketing professional, I thought it would be interesting to discuss a bit about Dove's long lasting "Real Beauty" marketing campaign, which both won awards and attracted much criticism over the years.

The Real Beauty campaign

First, let me introduce you to "Real Beauty". In 2004, based on the scary statistic that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful, Dove launched a new marketing campaign, conveying the idea that women should appreciate their inner beauty, the way they are. They called it the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.

The campaign started with  billboard advertisements, then they promoted this long term messaging over the years by launching regular activations, like the fake "beautify" photoshop action that really reversed the photo to its untouched state. Some of the activations were really innovative and went viral. In 2006 they even won two Cannes Lion Grand Prix awards with their Evolution spot.

As a woman, this campaign attracted my interest because, to be honest, this is one of the rarest times where a beauty brand offers that kind of message. Especially knowing that their job is to sell beauty products, they would have much to gain to promote body insatisfaction and offer miracle solutions to sell their products.

As a marketing professional, I also find this campaign interesting to study and understand, because, no matter what criticism it has attracted over the years, it is still a long-running, award winning success - although I do not really know how it has affected product sales.

Now, what does the very existence of this campaign mean for global society standards about beauty and body shape? Is this, like many critics say, nothing but a vile marketing ploy to seduce people who, like me, question society's standards and the ethics of companies who make money on women's insecurities? Or can we really consider it like a first step to question standards and give women their confidence back, like minimalism could be a first step in questionning consumerism?

The Sketch Artist Action

This year, they launched a new activation, hiring a FBI trained sketch artist and having him, without seeing the person's face, draw two sketches of a woman: one as described by herself, and one as described by a total stranger. The result is striking: women describe themselves as much uglier than strangers do.

The conclusion Dove draws from this experiment, is that women have a real self esteem problem in today's society, they don't see their own beauty. And they would probably be much happier and achieve many more things if they were made aware of that and had more self confidence.

I'll go into the criticisms and my own opinon a bit later below, but I think it is refreshing to be told, for once, that we are more beautiful than we think, rather than being told we should look taller and slimmer.

Here is the video if you'd like to take a look.

Critics on the campaign

As you can imagine when that kind of subject is touched, especially by a beauty company through marketing and advertisment, the Real Beauty campaign attracted many criticisms - about the truthfulness of the company, for example.

To mention only this latest sketches video, critics mainly mention that the "real beauty" of Dove is not that real, and that these women are still casted within a certain age and physical attributes range. Some also say that it conveys the idea that being beautiful should be important to women, reducing them to their physical attributes.

Finally, a critic that I find very interesting to discuss, says that this video conveys the idea that women are their own ennemies, and not a sexist society or an external standard. You can find a great article on Forbes summarizing and analyzing these critics.

Opening the debate

Regarding the campaign and its latest activation, I can understand the critics that say the women, supposed to represent real beauty, are in fact casted. Which seems to be true according to this source. Whereas the requirements of this casting could be discussed, I think one should not forget it is still a marketing campaign, and to me, the casting is not only a natural part of creating a spot, but also a secondary subject compared to the message itself.

Speaking of which, the debate around the message of this campaign reminds me of this questioning I had about minimalism. Is "real beauty" a trend Dove is surfing on to sell more products and fabricate an image of social responsibility, or a real sign of change? Let's be honest, Dove, and Unilever, are a business, and you can't ask a business to be totally desinterested, selfless and oblivious of sales and profit.

The real question I want to ask is: is this campaign actually useful for women, for everyone to start being aware of this subconscious standardization that make us complex about our bodies and lowers our self confidence?

And, in my personal opinion, the answer is yes. Back to the fake photoshop action campaign, I am not sure how many women are aware of the extent of the photoshop possibilities and how retouched the magazine images are. Even this sketch campaign is jaw-dropping - it brings a tangible proof that the way we see ourselves is biased, and that we are actually better looking than we think we are.

Besides, given how viral this latest video is (over 28 million views to date), whatever the viewer's opinion is on Dove's intentions, it does bring the subject forward to discussion. This very post is a proof of this, and there are many more articles, written by actual journalists on influent websites, that discuss their views on women's body image, self confidence, photoshop, "real beauty", sexism in society etc. It does create the debate, and in that aspect, I think it is useful.

An interesting question...

Finally, I'd like to close this post on a questioning created by both this video and the comment thread on Jess's post: what is the role of women themselves in that social pressure over tall and thin bodies?

As I mentioned above, one of the critics on the sketches video is that Dove suggests that women are their own enemies, rather than victims of a sexist society. But what if it was true? What if it was actually Dove's point? Yes, society imposes a standard on us, via many elements from advertisments to Barbie dolls, but what is the role of women themselves in that social pressure?

Dove suggests that we lower our own self-confidence, we undermine and undervalue our own physical attributes - meaning that maybe, if we are made aware of it, we could reverse this inner thinking.
Hippocampe suggest, in the Empty Emptor post comments, that it is women, rather than society as a whole, that impose this standard on each other. Which is actually a very interesting question, I mean, think about the last time you got a comment on your body shape referring to weight loss, being thin or tall, who did it come from?

I'll probably work on a post dedicated to this very last question, after I do a bit of thinking and research. In the meantime, please share your own opinion about all this! What do you think Dove's intentions are? Do you think the Real Beauty campaign is useful?

Further reading and sources:
Dove US's Youtube channel - all spots and videos
Dove's website on the Sketches campaign - sketches videos and women's testimonies
Ad to recruit the women for the campaign - criticism on the "Real Beauty" cast
The fake "Beautify" photoshop action stunt - video and explanations
The Sketches Action - Video and explanations
Sketches video parody - are men overconfident?
Wikipedia - Details on the Dove campaign for Real Beauty
Campaign Coverage - Is this a real game changer?
Campaign Coverage - On the campaign criticisms


  1. Haha, I've been thinking about this for about a week now, since I first saw the video (interestingly, in the context of a criticism of it), and I'm still not sure what I think. There are so many different factors to consider. Will it boost some women's self-esteem? Yes, absolutely, and it's good that an ad makes people feel better about themselves instead of worse for once. But I agree with the criticism that it focuses on the centrality of beauty to a woman's worth when that's something we should be aiming to shift focus away from. "You're not as beautiful as you would like? Who cares! You're still capable of amazing things as a human being, and you can make a wonderful difference with your existence and you should derive a positive sense of self from your contributions to the world and from your relationships with people who matter to you, not from whether a complete stranger thinks your chin is less pointy than you do!" - that would surely be a more constructive sentiment overall.

    And as I saw mentioned in one critique, there are plenty of women who look like the drawings on the left, the "ugly" drawings. What's the message that they're taking away from it? The general message is "you may be more beautiful to others than to yourself", but that's a relative comparison and it won't stop women from feeling they still don't live up to society's expectations of beauty. So perhaps at a superficial level this ad will make women feel better about themselves, but at a deeper level, it won't result in any change in the long-run, and that's what we need. I think it will probably result in increased sales for Dove, not just from being so widely viewed but because it has made people transiently feel positive. However, the same thing could be achieved with a humorous ad or an otherwise entertaining or clever ad. (And then I remember that Unilever owns Axe, whose marketing is all about reducing women to objects who can be induced into sexual acts merely by the musky scent of a deodorant, blargh.)

    I think women do get more direct, more explicit comments on their appearance from other women, but the underlying message of what an "attractive" or even "normal" person should look like comes from the media and from marketing, which is driven by both men and women. Women aren't pulling these sentiments from nowhere, and men are getting them too but perhaps to a lesser extent (since they're being targeted with different messages). But there are many ways in which men exert pressure over how women feel they should look, from men pretending they're so enlightened by stating a personal preference for "real women" (which offends all the women who are naturally very slim and tells them they're not proper women) to men being in control of marketing imagery or casting which only ever seems to present tall, thin, white women, as if little else exists. Even down to something as simple (and gross) as a cat-call or wolf-whistle in the street - these are all things that enforce the idea that men are rating women on their appearance, which makes women feel devalued and insecure. So creating an ad that reinforces the importance of a woman's beauty seems like it's not a particular progressive move in the long-run.

    1. Oh and my other issues with the whole Dove exercise are about its experimental soundness! If the sketch artist knew the purpose of the exercise, then he could have consciously or unconsciously made the pictures more attractive when other people were describing another person's face, and less attractive when people were describing their own faces. People were also giving their descriptions one-on-one to the artist (albeit through a gauzy curtain) - they're going to feel socially pressured to not say anything mean about someone else. Women are also socialised to be negative about their appearance, so when the women describe themselves, they're perhaps being more negative than they otherwise would be because they don't want to come across as arrogant. This is all exacerbated by the fact that it's being filmed, presumably in a room full of people. So would the pictures have looked different if the descriptions were written down anonymously? Also, how reliable was this sketch artist are accurately representing people's descriptions? I'm sure he's good at his job, but I would like to see other sketch artists produce their own drawings from the same descriptions and see how much agreement there is between interpretations. It surely must vary a bit, because people were using a lot of subjective language - like one person's idea of "nice eyes" or "a cute nose" will be different from another person's. So yeah... not the best way to conduct this exercise, but I'm sure Dove would have engineered it no matter what to get the result they wanted!

      Also I found some interesting YouTube videos regarding how difficult it is for people to comprehend the concept of it being ok to be ugly, so strong is our conditioning to regard beauty as important.


      So the word "ugly" is like the word "fat" - it's been used for so long with pejorative connotations that it's impossible to see it as a neutral, objective descriptor that doesn't have to devalue the person it's ascribed to (hence the efforts of the plus-size/fatshion community to reclaim "fat" as a neutral adjective). So obviously a Dove ad campaign embracing ugliness is never going to work! It had to be an ad about beauty, even though beauty and appearances simply should not matter. (Although it's hard to imagine that the human race could ever stop caring about beauty completely.)

    2. I am also skeptical regarding the experimental soundness of this campaign. I basically wrote if off right away for that reason, combined with the fact that it's just a brand wanting us to buy their things. Too cynical?

      I'm personally quite turned off by the brand capitalizing on an issue that many women (and I mean body image in general, so all of the Dove campaigns, not just this one) have in order to sell us more stuff. That's what they all do, right? It's just another to prey on our insecurities, I think, just in the reverse of the way that we're accustomed to (which makes it extra clever).

    3. Thanks for the long and detailed feedback! I don't know where to start, so let's cut in by theme:

      On the centrality of women's beauty --> I totally agree with you on the message itself, it is true that the message of this video "you are more beautiful than you think" and what it implies (that you will have a better life if you realize it) still enforces the fact that women need to feel beautiful/good about their looks in order to feel better in their life, and that's very contestable indeed.
      That being said, let's not forget that Dove is a brand selling beauty products, therefore they talk about beauty. I don't think it is their role to go around telling women that they can self-actualize through other means than physical beauty (I do think this is something that should be said more often though. ) And as a beauty brand, who will do some marketing anyway, I'd rather they say these things rather than showing photoshopped skinny models as the rest of them.

      On women's role in the pressure for social standards --> Thanks for your input on the matter, I'm still processing the question and will prepare a post on this in the coming weeks...

      On the experimental soundness of the clip --> Yes, it is very probably biased. One, women who talk about a stranger are pressured to avoid saying bad things, two, both the women and the sketch artist are probably cast, prepped and briefed before shooting the video. It is a marketing spot and not a scientific experiment. And I agree that the tone of the video can be misleading for people who are not familiar with how marketing campaigns work.
      That being said, as a marketing professional, I think this idea is brilliant. It conveys the message they want to share very efficiently, it is practical, easy to understand, creative, and effective (it did go viral after all). The backstage of it all can be argued, but it serves its purpose perfectly. And I globally like the message it conveys, put into context of a beauty brand marketing ad.

      About "ugly" and "fat" --> It is true that the "real brauty" women from the clip, although of various ages and ethnicities, are still globally "normal", and although the idea is that every woman is more beautiful than she thinks she is, it may not bring a solution as to being not as beautiful as a beauty standard, or simply a solution as to understanding that being "ugly" by society's standards shouldn't be that important, there is much more than that in life. But on that last point, again, I don't think it is Dove's mission to convey that kind of message. They are a beauty products brand, it is normal they speak about beauty and don't go much deeper than that.

      In the end, no matter all the (maybe justified) criticism, this campaign still goes deeper than most, and I think this is something worth acknowledging.

    4. Abby -- I agree that the fact that it is a beauty brand speaking within the context of a marketing campaign is, in itself, a situation that should make us wary, and on the guard as to what they are saying. Marketing is very good at manipulating numbers, images and emotions to make us believe what they want, and we definitely should remain critical.

      However, considered as a marketing campaign and within this context, I think Dove's real beauty campaign in general, and this video among their other activations, is still something worth acknowledging, without losing perspective that it is an ad, because most of the messages are so much more aggressive toward women's insecurities, this one is a nice change.

      And I think it can have benefits outside of the marketing campaign itself, if only the fact that it makes us talk about the issues raised by it. To be honest, It didn't make me like Dove more, and it won't make me buy their products, but it made me think about women's insecurities and body standards, and i think that's a good thing...

    5. I guess there are different layers to its evaluation as an ad then - I didn't even think to take it from a marketing perspective rather than a sociological perspective, but as an ad whose purpose is to get the brand name out there, it is hugely successful. People will talk about it a lot and there will generally be positive sentiments attached to that discussion. From a sociological perspective, it's not progressive and it's not empowering, except maybe at a very superficial level. This sort of ad is never intended to be an agent of social change, but it's still interesting to deconstruct it as part of a dominant cultural narrative that conflates beauty with worth and harnesses it for marketing purposes.

  2. 2 choses me viennent à l'esprit : la première c'est que le 2ème dessin est probablement aussi fantaisiste que le 1er, vu que le regard de l'Autre-qui-représente-le-regard-extérieur est tout aussi subjectif que celui de la Femme-qui-se-complexe-pour-rien et vu que, face caméra, l'Autre doit surveiller son langage et se montrer un minimum poli, j'imagine.
    Ensuite, la méthode de NAP, créant de l'anxiété, pourrait être contre-productive. Je vois des femmes dans les magasins qui se trouvent moches dans tous les vêtements qu'elles essaient et dont le leitmotiv est "il faut être grande et mince pour porter ça". La stratégie Dove-l'Oréal consistant à les bombarder de slogans positifs qu'on dirait tout droit sortis d'un self-book US sera peut-être plus payante, finalement.

    1. Oui c'est vrai, je pense que les deux dessins sont fantaisistes de toute façon pour la simple raison que c'est une campagne marketing, et le sketch artist, comme les femmes, ont sûrement été briefées très précisément avant de tourner la vidéo + pour créer le clip en post-production ils sont sûrement choisi les meilleurs sketches et les meilleurs témoignages uniquement.

      Ensuite, je me demande dans quelle mesure les insécurités des femmes leur font acheter des choses, ou au contraire comme elles se trouvent moches elles ne vont pas acheter le vêtement. Je pense qu'effectivement l'anxiété et les complexes peuvent être contre-productifs pour certains types de vêtements, mais peuvent mieux fonctionner pour les produits de beauté. Ceci dit, c'est vrai que les stratégies positives, qui poussent les femmes à s'assumer et à s'aimer comme elles sont, sont à mon avis payantes dans tous les cas d'un point de vue ventes. Sinon, Dove aurait arrêté sa campagne il y a bien longtemps...

  3. Thank you for yet another interesting blog post.
    I can't wait to read your follow up on the the question on whether or not the pressure to some extend come from women as opposed to from society.

    I became a mum 5 years ago and since then I have really become aware of the pressure to conform between women - in many ways comparable to the pressure to live up to the beauty ideals. I have been very surprised (and not pleasantly so!) to find out that between many women there are very strong norms and ideals about child raising, and although they are impossible to live up to all the time (food has to be home cooked - sugar has to be avoided - kids have to wear the right clothes, go to the right activities and be stimulated so that they can be the most brilliant) it's very prestigious to do it all the right way. And if you don't agree and say so out load, it's very frowned upon!

    The funny thing is that most of the fathers I know think that the ideals we try to live up to are rubbish - it's stuff, we only do to impress other women and conform to their ideas! So yes, in my opinion women definately do put a lot of pressure on other women - be it in our beauty ideals or in motherhood! And obviously it rubs off on how we feel about ourselves.

    1. Ah that's a very interesting parallel with motherhood! I am not a mother myself so I hadn't really noticed that before. It sounds like women have adopted a standard on how a child should be raised, and pressure other women to adopt the same standard as themselves, so it can be very similar to the beauty standards and peer pressure related to that.

      Thanks for sharing, it will definitely help in my thinking process on the matter...

  4. Great post, incredibly thoughtful. I feel that I don't have much to add to this argument than what has already been said before. Except that I wish we would stop second guessing companies and people when they actually do something right or something that seems to have no benefit to them. Even if they do have ulterior motives, at least they are moving in the right directions and hopefully their actions and results will create a call to action for other people. I usually sum it up with, "Great, you think that [insert person/company] isn't doing enough, so tell me what you are doing?" I can't criticize someone for not doing enough when I haven't even started.

    1. I think that we shouldn't lose perspective on what a marketing campaign is and what a brand's motives are, but I agree with you on the fact that different initiatives, better messages shouldn't be discarded just because they have been conveyed by marketing.

      And at least, they are moving in the direction of a better messaging, rather than inforcing the global standard like everybody else. It is a start. Not enough on the global scale, maybe, but still a great start for a beauty company.

  5. Ooh, great post Kali! I feel like I write that in every comment I leave here, but I really do mean it every time you know.

    I really really want to like Dove's Real Beauty campaign, I do. Taken out of context it is both powerful and mostly positive, which is rare to find in beauty advertising. But. But! The people who make money off of this campaign are the very same people who greenlight Axe's disgustingly sexist advertising, at the same time as they are making money off skin bleaching products in Asia. "Fair and lovely" is a brand under Unilever, who also own Dove. To me it is all marketing in the end, with the real beauty campaign as a mere tool to reach women like you and me.

    Now, I'm sure this is the case for every single cosmetics brand in the world, and that I should at least give Dove some slack for their positive message, but I just can't. Still not buying Dove I'm afraid.

    1. Thanks for the appreciation! I totally understand what you mean, and to be honest, it is mostly the marketing professional in me that admires this campaign, it is really marketing genius.

      Now as a consumer, I won't start buying Dove on that basis either, for the simple reason that they didn't give me any concrete and tangible reason that I should prefere their products over the ones I currently use. They don't talk about their products at all in fact, it is more a corporate campaign to promote their image of social responsibility.

      I still think their positive message is worth mentioning, while remaining objective on the motives of the company...
      As to the argument that Dove is owned by Unilever and that other brands from the same company have a very different positioning and messaging, yes, it is true, but in the context of this campaign, I think it is irrelevant because 1. people don't necessarily know about Unilever as a whole, and 2. when a company owns a portfolio of brands, why should they restrict their message or align it to what they say on other brands? Does it mean Dove should be sexist just because Axe is? On the contrary, I think it is nice to have a change like that. I'm even secretly hoping that if this kind of positive message works well on sales, it might inspire other Unilever brands, or other brands in general, to adopt the same kind of concept, and ditch slowly skinny mannequins (wishful thinking but still...)

  6. I want to like the campaign but I can't quite get over the fact that it's all in the name of branding. That said, it's successfully gotten people to think about this - so it is no doubt useful. I guess I grudgingly accept

    I like this commentary in NYT - http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/opinion/brooks-the-confidence-questions.html

    It asked one interesting question: "Do we undervalue the talent for self-criticism the women display in that video?"

    1. Thanks for sharing this link, very interesting indeed! I read a related article on this under-estimation of women, which said that women should impose themselves more in life to get what they want and that it's a real problem etc.

      And I didn't quite agree with that article. In fact, I even thought that being modest, and aware of our own short-comings, can have many advantages that our current society, based on competition and eating each other like sharks, completely disregards...

      I think in the end, it is a question of having the right balance. I remember reading a book on self esteem that my mother sent me when I was in Japan, it said that a "good" self esteem has to be neither to low, but nor to high either. A self esteem too low can impede us and make us miss opportunities because we think we are not good enough, but a too high self esteem can make us arrogant, undermine people around us and be blind to our own areas of improvement.

  7. When talking about our society - do you realize that 50% of our society members are women?
    Strange thought - one half of the world's population is bringing itself down by looking in a mirror. How did we get into this mess?

    1. It is quite disturbing isn't it? The idea that we are somehow imposing this upon ourselves and/or each other...

  8. What looks very surprising to me with all these debates over women's idea of beauty and its effects, is the fact that we still base our self-worth only in beauty. How can it be that the whole of our self-esteem is determined by our looks (and how we perceive ourselves)? that just boggles my mind...

    1. That's a very interesting question indeed. I have read a book (unfortunately in French only to my knowledge) called "Beauté Fatales, les nouveaux visages d'une aliénation féminine" by Mona Chollet (Fatal beauty, the new faces of the alienation of women).

      She explains in great details, supported by a lot of research and examples, how modern women are sort of enslaved by society without realizing it, beause of this pressure around looks and placing self-worth in physical attributes.

      She basically says that 50 years ago, women were limited by very factual elements like the family's home and husband money, as well as the absence of birth control on the subject of intimacy. Now, women don't have anything tangible limiting them - but she explains through her book how, subconsciously and pervasively, most women are still limited today, because they spend most of their time and energy trying to fit in a social standard, and linking their self-esteem and happiness to the superfluous concept of beauty rather than all these other things that define a human being.

      If that makes any sense.
      Here is the link to the book if by any chance you can speak French: http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index.php?ean13=9782355220395

  9. In case you haven't seen it yet, here is yet another new Dove campaign! Again, critical analysis of the ad would turn up multiple good and bad points.


    1. Thanks for the link, I hadn't spotted this one. It is well in line with the rest of their campaign, still very innovative from the marketing point of view. The question is: does it really work in laking parents realize the power of their words on children?

      Also, I wonder, what is this "self esteem program" they are talking about? They say many Portuguese schools asked to be part of it, I wonder what this is, because this one seems to go beyond a simple marketing campaign...

    2. I also have to wonder how much children's self esteem is impacted by comments from adults compared to how much it is impacted just by being exposed to a society and culture that imposes unrealistic expectations on people's bodies and abilities. Pretty sure a kid could have an incredibly positive, encouraging, supportive childhood and still end up with crippling self esteem issues.

      Yeah, I found the "self esteem program" weird too - what on Earth is it? The ad just doesn't mention it at all so I looked it up, and it turns out that Dove has partnered with a charity called Beat which aims to counter eating disorders by running workshops in schools that are intended to improve kids' body image. It's good because they specifically say that the workshops do not promote the Dove brand or its products. However, there was a campaign where Dove would donate more money to Beat depending on sufficient numbers of Dove products being bought by consumers in a given time period, which certainly would have incentivised people to perhaps opt for Dove over other brands since it *might* result in increased charity donations, depending on overall sales. And the adults who sign up for their children/class to be part of Beat workshops have to tick a box to opt OUT of receiving advertising about Dove and other Unilever brands. So the advertising is pretty closely woven into the benevolence...