Eye of the Beholder

Dove's flight of fancy

What do consumers make of the Dove ad campaign challenging the traditional notion of female beauty? Some might say that it was an audacious move from a multinational like Unilever. Others prefer to label it as a cynical exercise by an advertising giant making a big deal about little as it is unable to get its agency to think up something slick.

When Unilever surveyed women worldwide, over two-thirds said the media and advertising set unrealistic standards of beauty which most women cannot achieve. Women said they wished to look and feel beautiful – but they wanted the definition of beauty changed. Just two per cent chose the word 'beautiful' to describe their “looks”.

How women feel about their looks, their overall appearance, is more appropriate to reveal their true self and esteem, while the term 'beauty' usually involves some comparison with others, as if they were forced into an ongoing competition. Or as it that the definition of beauty itself was exact and limited, which it certainly is not?

Why aren't women glad to be gray? What's wrong with wrinkles? Can't a redhead with freckles look adorable? To be fair, Dove campaigns never used supermodels or sexy babes or pin-ups. In agency tests, everyday women with cute noses, real curves, hirsute and tummies they wanted to do away with or change, were hired by Ogilvy & Mather.

As the Dove campaign got underway in September 2004, women went online to cast their votes and join the beauty debate in chat rooms. Confessions, philosophical questions and rants (like “females are dying to try to fit into these stereotypes, fighting depression and self-hate and ridicule, and for what?”) showed nerves were being struck.

O&M had hired Susie Orbach, writer of many books on women's psychology, including Fat is a Feminist Issue, for advice. Orbach was surprised, delighted and intrigued as she had never thought the beauty industry would call on a shrink like her. Was the approach a bit of ethical window-dressing or a real attempt to overhaul how women are portrayed?

Orbach told Unilever that just 30 minutes looking at a magazine can seriously lower a youngster's esteem. One in four college females has an eating disorder, prompted by a longing to be accepted, pretty and feel good about herself. She said that most women wake up feeling their tummies to check how good or bad they were the day before.

“In a sense,” Orbach said, “all women are complicit in these unrealistic representations of femaleness. In order not to feel entirely powerless inside a visually dominating landscape that represents beauty so narrowly, we play out our own beauty scripts inside it, not questioning it, but trying to meet it… the victim rejects the idea she's being used.

“She will involve herself in trying to look younger, skinnier, taller, bigger-breasted, smaller-breasted and making sure every surface is coiffed, painted, plucked, waxed, perfumed, moisturised, conditioned or dyed. Taking the job on for herself is her response to being targeted and it's her refusal, to, as it were, be done to,” Orbach added.

Even if all enemies were banished, ageing would be waiting just around the corner. Dove's mission was to offer something to women based not on impossibility, but on practicality. Research for the British government had showed that the promotion of images of ever-skinnier, wan-looking Kate Moss-types, but apparently need-free women who shoved attitude into the lens, was creating serious problems for women of all ages.

Beauty had moved from being the interest of the few to the aspiration of all females. All very well, but Orbach was anxious to challenge the negative aspects of what she had come to call the visual musak, the ersatz femininity. She wanted to include diverse, vibrant, pleasing and sexy images of women of all sizes, ages and physical types.

The terms and expansion of beauty faltered on a paradox. The industry was promoting an idea of beauty that was narrow and exclusive. Everyone had to be thin, thinner, thinnest. If Dove was going to turn around aspects of the beauty and dieting industries, they would have to produce bold, startling images of women in all of their sumptuous variety.

Orbach encouraged Unilever to adopt a Dove campaign which would appreciate women for their magnificent differences, their uniqueness and not their sameness. Women had had enough of not finding themselves in the ads they see. If Dove could get it right, others would follow. Too true. Within months, Revlon hired actress Susan Sarandon.

The 'untouched' photos of real women in the Dove ads are not exactly chopped liver in the looks department. Judging from the pictures of non-models in bras, panties and big, happy smiles there does not seem to be much anyone would need to do to improve them. It is the smiles that make them beautiful and how inner beauty shines through.

Commenting on the Dove initiative, US psychologist Dr Joyce Brothers said the disconnect between the Barbie-esque model and the average-looking woman wants to feel prettier begins to fade. A new image, closer to how she feels inside, can start to replace Barbie as the look she can aspire to and achieve.

Dr Brothers said she found it interesting that of the women surveyed by Unilever most of them were more comfortable using the words 'looks' when describing themselves as above average, than using the term 'beauty'. Beauty is no longer the exclusive domain of magazines and films. The Dove ads work because they are aspirational, but doable.


In a seminal Seventies study, US psychologist Douglas Kenrick barged in on male students watching Charlie's Angels and asked them to rate a photo of an averagely attractive female student. He did the same with students watching babe-free shows. Kenrick found the babe watchers gave the average student a lower score.

The result suggested that that male students'standards were raised by exposure to babe-packed shows, a conclusion borne out by further tests. Slides were shown to three groups of male students – of Playboy centrefolds, averagely attractive women and abstract art, respectively. Sure enough, the Playboy watchers gave the thumbs down to Ms Average.

Kenrick then asked the men to rate their partners for attractiveness and how much they loved them. The Playboy-affected men rated their partners lower. Next he turned to the effect on women. Viewing slides of female models lowered their moods. After being shown beauties, women vulnerable to eating disorders wanted to be slimmer.

British psychiatrist Oliver James is convinced that advertising has played a major part in the three to ten times in rates of depression since 1950, with twice as many women as men depressed. James wants the ASA to appoint a public panel to judge the beauty of women used and insist on the hiring of more averagely attractive women as models.

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