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Perception and Reality in Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” Essay

By the most general standards that might be used to judge the success of an advertising campaign, the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” has been a success. The marketing scheme launched in 2004 has produced what is known in the advertising industry as “buzz. ” The “Real Beauty Models” featured in the United States campaign have appeared on such popular television shows as “Oprah,” “The View,” and “The Today Show. ” In 2008, Dove reported that sales of its firming cream, a lotion intended to reduce the appearance of cellulite, increased 700 percent, while the sales of Dove’s parent company, Unilever, rose 6.7 percent (Case Study).

The campaign’s impact has surely benefitted as much from its detractors as it has from it champions. A closer look at the campaign in the context of the social forces in which it was created paints a clearer picture of what the Dove marketers were up to. A critique of images from the Dove campaign reveals how the marketers attempted to manipulate their target audience. Images of the “Real Beauty Models” first have to be understood within their cultural context.

The Dove campaign arose in a media environment that, in the analysis of many, presented an

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unrealistic view of female beauty often destructive of women’s self-esteem. In 2004, Dove released a survey that claimed “Only two percent of women describe themselves as beautiful” and that 75 percent of women say “they wish the media did a better job of portraying women of diverse physical attractiveness, including age, shape, and size” (Media Awareness Network).

The campaign’s ostensible goal was to give its customers what they wanted: a more realistic depiction of women in popular media. Claiming that the campaign challenged stereotypes, Dove’s marketing director, Philippe Harousseau, put it this way, “Women were ready to hear this” (Walker). But justifications of this sort for the campaign are perhaps a cynical attempt to reframe the old message, i. e. , that cellulite is ugly and women ought to buy cream to get rid of it, in the context of a feminist media critique, to sell the campaign itself.

It seems that Dove marketers were also aware that this contradiction might cause an undesirable backlash in the marketplace, and so the “Dove Self-Esteem Fund,” contributing to the Girl Scouts of America and other groups, was launched and publicized. In funding “self-esteem programs” the Dove campaign has raised the very unlikely possibility in the minds of customers and media critics that Dove marketers might actually mean what they say about self-esteem and the unhealthy media landscape (Dove website).

But the images put forth by the Dove campaign tell a slightly different story, at least when the subtext of the advertisements is the subject of interpretation. Before turning to a single image, it is important to note the differences among the images used in the campaigns launched in different countries. The American campaign focused on six models, four of whom appear to be of European descent, the remaining two presumably of African extraction.

European campaign images feature eleven or twelve women, three of whom appear to be of African descent (see American Image, European Image). The smaller group in the American campaign is likely calculated to produce a feeling of greater intimacy between the viewer and models. The American campaign features closer shots, with facial expressions more clearly visible. The smaller number of models also lends itself, no doubt, to a broader media campaign in which the models would need to appear on television shows such as “Oprah.

” This would hardly be possible with the stable of models in the European campaign. It is as though Dove’s marketers knew the American campaign would have to be more accountable to its audience, that the campaign would be more controversial and thus need better, more personal representation. It must also be noted that the six core models of the American campaign are not as heavy as those presented in the European campaign, one of the central American models being a fair-skinned blonde whose figure differs little from the unrealistic portrayal many decry.

Perhaps these subtle adjustments were made for an American media environment that would be less accepting of a group of heavier women in their underwear. Dove marketers wanted to subtly subvert the dominant media paradigm, but they did not want to risk turning the American audience off. It must also be noted that the variation in skin tone is not as great in the American campaign: it lacks the darkest color in the crayon box, while the European images do not. The possibility that Dove wanted to skirt any subversive racial or socio-political messages by avoiding too great an African presence cannot be ignored.

Both campaigns, however, fail to represent a wide range of ages. The models all appear to be in their twenties and thirties, though perhaps some of them are well-preserved and in their early forties. Presumably, many buyers of cellulite cream are in their fifties and sixties, and so this lack of diversity merely replicates the biases of the images Dove marketers sought to subvert, namely those that entice older women to buy a product in order to look younger.

A critique of an image from the European campaign reveals some of the cynical manipulations of Dove’s marketing. Though the image seems to advocate for diversity, the models wear expressions that are eerily similar. Each woman is at the climactic point of what appears to be spontaneous joy. Each seems confident, but a little surprised that her picture is being taken. None strike the poses typical of magazine models, their postures lacking the uprightness of the typical fashion waif. But the poses of a few are clearly ironic.

The third woman from the right boldly rests her hand on an out-thrust hip as if to say, “I’m pretending to be a model. ” In this sense, the women seem unnatural, posed in a calculated send-up of typical advertisements. There is also an obvious tension between the models’ nonchalant, asexual expressions and the fact that they are in very skimpy attire. If a few of the models can be said to be wearing “come hither” looks, they are doing so only with a ironic smile, with their eyes seeming to be laughing.

It is Dove’s attempt at de-sexualizing the nude, or the near-nude, as it were. It is a calculation designed to reframe cellulite cream not as a product used to appeal to the opposite sex, but to appeal to oneself alone. The image is asking its viewer to internalize notions of beauty in a deeper, more self-centered way than those with unrealistic depictions of feminine beauty. The fact that the image plays out on a two-dimensional plane seems to suggest that there is none of the typical marketing trickery going on here, that the viewer need not look too deeply.

These are just women being themselves, not selling cellulite cream. The clinical white used in the images is also meant to evoke this no-nonsense reality. Perhaps the Dove ads are most effective in getting the women in their target audience to let down their guards. With her unattainable beauty, the typical fashion magazine model evokes something of a defensive response in the viewer her image targets. While the targeted viewer might fantasize about looking like this ideal model, she is too distant to identify with her.

The Dove campaign deftly dissolves that distance and asks the viewer not only to identify with the models, but to advocate for the advertisement itself, to cheer on the social and political subtext the image so boldly conveys. But there is a subtext below the limpid surface and the facile girl-power message: buy our cream and you’ll be happy. Works Cited American Dove Campaign for Real Beauty image. http://graphics8. nytimes. com/images/blogs/themoment/posts/080610_digitalramble_dove .jpg (accessed 1 May 2010). “Case Study: Beneath the Skin. ” Brand Strategy. 8 May 2008. http://www.

accessmylibrary. com/coms2/summary_0286-34437559_ITM (accessed 1 May 2010). Dove website. “Campaign for Real Beauty” tab. http://www. dove. us/#/cfrb/selfesteem/ (accessed 1 May 2010). European Dove Campaign for Real Beauty image. http://www. culture- buzz. com/IMG/png/nivea_image_3. png (accessed 1 May 2010). Media Awareness Network. “Teachable Moments: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. ” http://www. media-awareness. ca/english/resources/educational/ teachable_moments/campaignrealbeauty. cfm (accessed 1 May 2010). Walker, Rob. “Social Lubricant. ” New York Times. 4 September 2005.

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