The six things wrong with the most watched ad in the world

The woman, the appearance-affirming sketches and the sunlit studio. What more could anyone ask for?

The woman, the appearance-affirming sketches and the sunlit studio. What more could anyone ask for?

We found out earlier this week that the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ ad is officially the most watched in the world, clocking up  more than 114 million views. We already spoke of our own frustrations with the commercial disguised as an inspirational pean to women when we posted it on Daily Life in April. But to mark it’s record-breaking milestone we’d like to dig deeper into the many flaws of a campaign that claims it's all about getting you to believe you don’t have any.

1. One hundred and fourteen million is a lot of women needing validation for their looks. Hmm... wonder why? Could it be that the advertising industry itself is responsible for this? Even 10 years ago, women were exposed to 3000 brands a day on average (often without actually realising it), and babies at the age of six months could recognise corporate logos.

 As feminist author and filmmaker Jean Killbourne points out in her documentary Killing Us Softly

The forensic sketch artist - aka - poor man's George Clooney.

The forensic sketch artist - aka - poor man's George Clooney.

 ‘Advertising tells us who we are and who we should be. What does advertising tell us today about women? It tells us just as did it 10 and 20 and 30 years ago that what’s most important about women is how we look.’

We think it’s rather hypocritical and insidious of Dove to then act as if us poor ladies alone are responsible for A. Feeling like we don’t measure up and B. Needing reassurance about that fact when, as Erin Kean points out in her piece in Salon, women are not their worst critics – advertisers are. “All of that body image baggage is internalised by growing up in a society that enforces rigid beauty standards, and since the target demographic for this ad is clearly women over 35 with access to library cards (which is to say, women who have had some time to figure this reality out), it is baffling that Dove can continue to garner raves for its pandering, soft-focus fake empowerment ads.”

2. Let us put this gently by saying that not every single woman born into the world can manifest herself into  Angelina Jolie. Which is fine! And should be considered irrelevant. Is it right, then, to shepherd some ordinary  women into a sunlit studio and ask them to confront their ‘real beauty’ when they’re simply normal looking? To tease this kind of physical evaluation out of them seems not only misleading and unnecessary but cruel as well.

3. Why do women need to be convinced of their own ‘true beauty’ by a guy? More specifically, a guy, (see above) wearing a bizarre mobster-like ring on his right hand? Have we come all this way to sit down at a place where men still tell women what’s best for them? Haven’t we had enough? Apparently not because the message still persists: us silly women need someone with a gravelly voice, a masculine jaw and the looks of a poor man’s George Clooney, because we clearly can not trust ourselves.

4. As Kate Fridkis pointed out in her response to the ad on Huffington Post, it's a very small sample of the population, with nearly all the women in the light-filled studio looking ' like the kind of pretty, thin, white women that Dove would choose for a polite, non-threatening campaign about how, seriously, we should all feel better about ourselves.’

5. And, just on that topic: who says we need to feel better about ourselves anyway? Some of us feel neither here nor there about our looks because - shockingly - we don't dwell on them too much. But every time an alleged empowerment commercial like this pops up it reminds us that we should be paying more attention to our looks, if not fretting about them. For, if we're not beautiful then what are we? Nothing more than useless consumers. As Ann Friedman writes in New York Magazine, The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.

6. A parody of the ad in which a handful of men see themselves as better looking than they are in real life illustrates a deeper point about how men and women have been socially conditioned. Statistically, men rate themselves as better looking than they are while women often do the opposite. But this is part of a broader problem because, you see, women do this about almost everything. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In ‘Women systematically underrate their own abilities. As a result, women don’t negotiate for themselves in the workplace. Women attribute success to external factors, men attribute success to themselves.’

Why is this so? Because the wider culture tells us we should. Women are actively rewarded for behaving in this way and punished for doing the opposite. But we have to wonder if an ad featuring a few women saying how hot they thought they were would gain as much traction. We have a hunch it wouldn’t because nobody likes a girl to toot her own horn. We prefer our ladies to have, if not poor self esteem, then at least a whiff of compliance – that way they can be patronised into learning a valuable psychological lesson. See, no matter which way you turn it, the message is still: women, y’all don’t know the truth. So who holds the final authority on how we see ourselves? Why, everyone except ourselves apparently. We have to be knocked down so that we may be rebuilt in Dove's image. Which is just the way Dove likes it.

31 comments

  • Our modern economic system depends on people being chronically unhappy. We have a sociopathic economy.

    Commenter
    Spadeboy
    Date and time
    May 22, 2013, 10:08AM
    • Not so much unhappy, just aspirational.

      The thing is that all these beauty products and moisturisers etc... are largely the same. For that reason, when trying to sell moisturiser, you can't just sell the promise of softer skin, because that is selling moisturiser in general and you want the public to buy YOUR brand.

      So, what you have to sell is an ideal that the consumer can aspire to and hopefully believe that the product will help them attain.

      With Dove, the ideal is feeling good about yourself, being happy with your body and looks. The trick is trying to simultaneously sell women the idea that they are perfect just as they are but that they also need to buy beauty products.

      Commenter
      Dave
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 11:25AM
    • ...and yet we express dismay at the high rates of depression and anxiety in our society.

      Commenter
      Spadeboy
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 11:29AM
    • Excessive and unrealistic aspiration is likely to lead to depression and feelings of failure for many, in my opinion.

      Commenter
      mum of four
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 6:24PM
  • Couldn't've put it better myself, Spadeboy.

    Commenter
    What!
    Date and time
    May 22, 2013, 10:37AM
    • You may want to add "Dove is owned by Unilever, the same company who owns Lynx".

      Commenter
      LC
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 10:50AM
      • And "Fair and Lovely", a skin-bleach widely used in Asia and India (head-desk).

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        May 22, 2013, 11:23AM
    • I agree in principle with what you have said in this article. My only comment is that it seems somewhat hypocritical to belittle the value of the the forensic sketch artist by what I can surmise is solely due to him being a man and his looks - calling him a "poor man's George Clooney". Isn't that the very same unachievable social expectation of men that you have criticised the populace of placing on women (specifically saying not all women can be like Angelina Jolie)?

      Commenter
      A
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      May 22, 2013, 10:52AM
      • Great Point!

        Also..."Women attribute success to external factors, men attribute success to themselves" Isn't the opposite really the point of this article; men attribute failure to their own performance, women (or more specifically feminists) attribute failure to external factors, specifically the mystical catch-all for all things bad, "the Patriarchy?"

        Commenter
        Nogbad
        Location
        Inconsistency Central
        Date and time
        May 22, 2013, 2:35PM
      • Nogbad I wouldn't see that as the opposite, just the flipside to the same coin - that women are more likely to base their own success or failure on what others tell them than men are.

        And based on the approaches of many of the most public and influential female figures, it seems rather than try and help women overcome this crippling and self-destructive reliance on external sources to determine their own personal success and happiness, the goal is to try and shift every single aspect of society toward offering constant and unwavering support for all women, all the time, regardless of the situation.

        This of course does nothing to address the underlying problem, and instead actually keeps them shackled to the premise that women are only allowed to be as successful as society lets them be, the fight against which was one of the major points of feminism to begin with.

        Commenter
        Markus
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        May 22, 2013, 5:01PM

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