The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has finally overreached.
In its ongoing quest for viral publicity, the Unilever brand has produced a video so patronizing and manipulative that it calls attention to how patronizing and manipulative the branding campaign has been all along.
Like last year’s sketch artist video, Dove’s latest online ad involves a faux-scientific “social experiment.” Only this time the trickery is explicit. We see women participating in what appears to be a trial for the new RB-X “beauty patch.” In initial interviews, the women wallow in their insecurities. After they’ve worn the patch for a few days, they recount tales of compliments and confidence. It’s a miracle! Let's all buy the patch! The psychologist running the prank then reveals the truth: There’s nothing in the patch.The women have been duped. Instead of getting angry about looking like fools, they’re delighted, albeit in a teary sort of way. Dove has saved the day again.
Dove’s “Real Beauty” ads have always treated women as dumb, or at the very least immature. They’ve always preached that adult women are typically obsessed with their looks and that recognizing flaws is the same as feeling hideous and miserable. They’ve always projected adolescent attitudes onto grownups while styling Dove as an enlightened savior. This time, however, the brand made its condescension a little too clear, sparking a well-deserved firestorm of criticism.
“Shame upon you, Dove, for making these women seem dumb,” declared a New York Magazine piece, the headline of which called the video “garbage.” AdWeek asked, “Is Dove empowering women or calling them gullible?” Dove’s whole campaign, concluded the feminist website Jezebel, is “about teaching women that Dove knows better. Dove is smarter,” than its foolish customers. Jezebel tagged the post with the category “Badvertising.”
Most devastating is a parody video this week by the online comedy video network Above Average Productions. Called “#TRUEBEAUTY -- Dove Real Beauty Mirror Test,” it opens with a portentous and cloying narrator saying, “What do we as women really think about our appearance? The answers might surprise you.” Indeed they do -- at least if you get your information from Dove ads (or Jezebel articles) rather than from women who aren’t paid to fret about beauty.
Three women give realistic, nonchalant answers: “Good. Pretty good”; “There’s definitely room for improvement”; “I feel OK about it. You know, I have good days, bad days.” None seems obsessed with her flaws. None seems to confuse attractiveness with perfection or beauty with self-worth. They talk like adults, not insecure teenagers.
Then the fun starts. The interviewer leaves the room and points the subjects toward a mirror on the wall. When each woman glances at the mirror, she’s shocked to see someone in a gorilla suit inside the frame. “You look in the mirror and what you see is a disgusting zoo animal,” says the smarmy interviewer’s voice on a public-address system. None of the women is fooled, of course; they’re insulted and creeped out. They act like real women. And that makes Dove look desperate and obnoxious.
By Virginia Postrel
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinion expressed is hers.