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April 30, 2013

Overthinking the Dove Sketches Ad

Last week we had a little fun with the Dove sketches ad (and later, the male parody version). Mercifully - and somewhat uncharacteristically - we eschewed any attempt at serious commentary. We're not ashamed to admit the ad made us cry, but then all sorts of fairly trivial things have been known to fill the eyeballs of the Editorial Staff with tears: cute babies, pictures of kids with dogs, weddings, sea otters, older couples holding hands or sitting close to each other.

Our MasterCard bill.

Apparently we were not alone: the ad has garnered something like 30 gazillion views. Clearly it resonated with women. It struck a chord. A dark, creepy, sinister chord:

People, these Dove ads are sinister. With some basic dissection we see that the message is: You may have low self-esteem but someone else might describe you as pretty and therefore you should have high self-esteem and then buy our product because we are promoting a world where people base their self-esteem on other people’s superficial perceptions of each other, which may or may not be higher than you thought.

Sorry, but you don’t overcome a world where physical beauty is overemphasized by . . . emphasizing beauty. And self-esteem is never properly built from the outside in.

A woman’s self esteem should never, ever, come from her physical appearance.A woman’s self esteem should never, ever, come from her physical appearance.

Repeat that to your ownselves a few times (it helps if you click your ruby slippers together after each repetition), because the best way for women to FINALLY learn to think for themselves is for other women to tell them how they should feel and what they should think.

The feelings police then came calling, armed with pale-y pink posters. Foolish women! How shallow and easily manipulated you are, letting the big, bad corporate barons prey on your delicate emotions for commercial gain! Because you just know that every.single.woman.who.liked.the.ad ran right over to her local CVS and stocked up on Dove products to shore up her abysmally low self worth. Admit it - that's exactly what you did, didn't you?

We're just counting the days until the Dove ads spawn a new round of reality TV shows. "Her life, though shallow and plagued by recurring bouts of worthlessness and self doubt, was fairly normal... until she saw that Dove sketches ad. Now, secret caches of Dove products are stashed all over the house. Body butter, moisturizing shampoo with real Moroccan argan oil from a lost trove of ancient nuts hidden beneath the Egyptian sands by Princess Nefertiri. A miraculous little eye cream made from an obscure cantaloupe grown only in the South of France! Springtime fresh antiperspirant that doesn't leave those icky white stains on your favorite little black dress! When she began stuffing stray bars of soap and tiny bottles of shower gel under the sheets on his side of the bed, her long suffering husband moved out of the marital abode. He didn't miss waking up with shea butter between his toes, but the lingering fragrance of Dove's Cool Fresh Essentials with Cucumber and Green Tea Extract filled his dreams like an evanescent avatar of lost desire and broken dreams...."

Holy crap, people. Get a grip. Sometimes an ad is just an ad.

We can't speak for All Womankynd, Everywhere (mostly because we'd never get a word in, edgewise) but here's why the ad connected with the Editorial Staff. It had very little to do with looks, unrealistic body images, or the silky firmness of the Editorial Thighs. It was the two parts mentioned by this author:

One man described a woman as having “nice eyes; they light up when she spoke,” presumably indicative of a woman who has passion and joy that she shares with those she speaks with. Another woman got teary eyed as she looked at the sketch dictated by a stranger and said, “she looks more open, friendly, happy.” Open. Friendly. Happy. These are internal traits that are often displayed outwardly in our smile, our bright eyes, and the general uplifting manner in which we carry ourselves.

The message we got from the ad was the antithesis of "See??? You're not really such a narwhale. And other people don't really find your outer wrapper cringe-inducing ...much."

The ad was a reminder of two things. First, that what's on the inside: joy, passion, enthusiasm, intelligence, wit, kindness - is written on our faces. People do see glimpses of who we are in the way we carry ourselves, or the way our eyes soften when we're thinking of someone or something we love. Men appreciate a nice pair of legs or a perky pair of breasts, but they also enjoy what a classical author once described as "a fine pair of eyes" or a merry countenance.

And secondly, most of us are far harder on ourselves than others are on us.

Men are often made to feel guilty about their natural enjoyment of female beauty. In some ways that's a great shame, because there's nothing wrong with the way God made men (or women, for that matter). Usually, the objection isn't so much to the attraction as it is to the modern inability to keep from publicly expressing normal feelings best kept private. I often wonder how most men would react if women started saying, "I'd hit that" every time they saw a good looking young man? How would most husbands react if their wives inexplicably felt the compulsion to publicly remind others that they secretly fantasize about having hot, nasty monkey sex with the Eagle Scout down the street because dayum, that kid is hot? There's this sort of aggressive, in-your-face vibe about something anyone with the sense the good Lord gave a grapefruit already knows. Most men don't even talk this way but as with so many things in life, the vocal few are the only precincts heard from.

Ace had an interesting take on this, though naturally we feel bound to take issue with it because he's a man:

Women are starved for this sort of positive messaging, even when, if you think about if for five seconds, 1, it doesn't make any sense that Dove could tell you this about yourself and 2, Dove is obviously a corporation attempting to get attention by peddling an embarrassingly-transparently cloying-ingratiating message to women in hopes they're so starved for a kind word they'll take it anyway.

So it worked. I'm not blaming women for this; it is different for girls, and a single virtue, beauty, is far more central to their sense of self worth than any single virtue is to a man.

There's more than a grain of truth here, just like there's a grain of truth in stereotypes about men being obsessed with beauty. The problem is that it's nowhere near the whole truth. It sells the human spirit short. Women do want to be attractive. For that matter, so do men. Ace is right to observe that society values female attractiveness so much more than it does male attractiveness. But valuing one trait - beauty - highly doesn't mean society values none of women's other attributes. It has always seemed very odd to us that men allow themselves to be so manipulated by sex. The insinuation that real men are having 4 times nightly sex with surgically enhanced Czech supermodels is drilled into their heads pretty much 24/7. And yet we suspect that although men are just as susceptible to the messages in advertising aimed at men as we are in ads aimed at us, they're not mindless automatons.

Women aren't, either. And we're no more vulnerable to cynical attempts to leverage the odd - and completely normal - self doubt than men are. Which is to say, sometimes those kinds of ads work. But not for long and not as well as their makers think they will.

What made me tear up while viewing the Dove ad was the reminder of how perceptive and decent people can be - how often they see and appreciate what we most want them to value: what's on the inside. It was a reminder of how often we fixate on unimportant things while missing the big picture.

Seems like a lousy way to sell soap, doesn't it?

Posted by Cassandra at April 30, 2013 06:22 AM

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Holy crap, people. Get a grip. Sometimes an ad is just an ad.


Seems like a lousy way to sell soap, doesn't it?

And that's what annoys me most about this "sinister" bulldookie [censoring myself for the Company here, because this shi'ite makes me angry]. Dove IS a company out to make a profit. But the sour harridans like Ashely E. McGuire will RAIL about how beauty product companies... nay... INDUSTRIES (a scarier more capitalist word), prey upon women's insecurities to get them to buy their products... I mean poisons.

And here comes Dove, trying to play out of stereotype by making, what is in reality a counterproductive ad that doesn't even MENTION a single product. Spending LOTS of money to do so. Surely for promotional reasons (which clearly worked, because look at all the talk it generated for them), but still a positive message. And Ms. Sinister Chord up there STILL kvetches about it! How DARE they? How DARE they make an ad that doesn't tell women they can't be beautiful unless they're using Dove products? How DARE they tie beauty to self esteem, which no womyn EVER does? Why they're perpetuating STEREOTYPES!

Lighten up Francis. It's just a damned ad.

Posted by: MikeD at April 30, 2013 08:59 AM

When I was writing this, this morning I kept thinking of this ANNOYING ad for Axe body spray that played twice every.durned.time.it.aired over the weekend.

It starts with an aerial shot of a crashed spaceship or some such nonsense, then pans to an interior stairway in someone's condo/apartment. There's a spacesuit and helmet lying on the stairs in flagrante delicto. The camera then pans to the bedroom, where a gorgeous nekkid brunette lounges betwixt the sheets looking smug and sated, then into the glass shower in the bathroom where Our Hero is revelling in well deserved post-coital ablutions.



Posted by: Cass at April 30, 2013 09:55 AM

When you really stop to think about it, most Dove products really do very little to make you look better.

Soap cleans you and makes you smell fresh. Body wash does the same thing whilst perhaps refraining from stripping your skin bone dry. Deodorant.. well, we all know what it does.

But make you *look* better? I don't think so. If anything, the message is more like, "Keep yourself clean and let the rest take care of itself" than "OMG your lashes are falling out, you have big nasty circles under your eyes and your cellulite just applied for its own zip code!!!11!" :p

Posted by: Cass at April 30, 2013 10:01 AM

My father was a Madison Avenue ad-man for 30-odd years, so I by the time I was a teenager I was already well-educated about "what works" when it comes to "selling soap" "It's all soap," he would say. Strip away the baloney and the only thing that distinguishes a bad comercial from a great commercial is whether anyone remembers the name of the product." In that vein, Dove hit this thing out of the park. Great big bonus to the guy or gal that brought in the storyboard.

Now, I think that this campaign should capitilize on its widespread recognition by quickly following up on the characters it introduced. In the first ad we learned that each of these women needed a self-esteem makeover. Now let's build on that idea by showing the viewer how they've gone about changing the way they view themselves. It's got to be edgier, though. Drop the sketch artist and the curtain. NO MORE HIDING! Recognize that 30 million copies of "Fifty Shades of Gray" flew off of the bookshelves, and figure out how to get that feminine fantasy into a 30-second spot that sells some soap! And work in some ponies. Women love ponies.

Posted by: No Soap, Radio at April 30, 2013 10:20 AM

You are sooooooooooooo dead :p

Posted by: Sister Mary Bag O'Metaphors at April 30, 2013 10:43 AM

This is not, by any means, a new campaign for Dove. They changed their message about ten years ago to focus more on *real* women. They stopped using the uber-thin models and began using more average (even plus) sized models in their commercials, stopped focusing on "put upon" beauty and realigned toward enhancing inner and natural beauty. This ad, the message for which was clearly "You are more beautiful than you think", was another step in that campaign. The fact that the harpy at the other website cannot see, much less understand, this is testament to the origins of her *visual accuity*.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 30, 2013 12:31 PM

Well, the ad wasn't just for women. Like Mike, I got a lot out of being able to show it to a woman I love. It helps me if it helps her see something about how I see her, so she can imagine that way of seeing her as a tonic to how she sees herself.

It was a good project. "Selling soap" isn't incompatible with virtue, sometimes.

Posted by: Grim at April 30, 2013 12:35 PM

Once again, Grim explains my position with a quarter the words and infinitely more clarity.

And for the record, Dove does sell more than soap. They have a whole line of products. Seen here:

Posted by: MikeD at April 30, 2013 03:04 PM

Hi again.
Go ahead and call me simple (BTW, you wouldn't be the first . . . but:
it's a long standing principle in advertising to use both 'sex' and self image to promote products. Why the grief over this kinda nice version, yet not over Victoria Secret (and yes, most fashion products) that blatently portray women as sex objects?
and as others have already noted, this works both ways . . . watch ads for 'stuff' for men.

Personally I have no problem with either ads or fashions that glorify the natural beauty of women, but admit I'm uncomfortable w/ the industry bias that suggests that women need to conform to their current image of beauty, or that anyone is defined by their appearance.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at April 30, 2013 10:31 PM

A great post, Cassandra, and thanks so much for the "two parts" link. Great comments, too - as pretty much always. :+)

Posted by: Elise at May 1, 2013 11:56 AM

Personally I have no problem with either ads or fashions that glorify the natural beauty of women, but admit I'm uncomfortable w/ the industry bias that suggests that women need to conform to their current image of beauty, or that anyone is defined by their appearance.

That's a pretty good summation of the way I feel about ads. The ones that bother me the most are the ones with subversive or transgressive messaging, especially when they're aimed at kids.

The spouse and I have been watching with amazement how mentions of porn and sexting have worked their way into ads for mainstream products. The first one I noticed was a cell phone ad where the wife kisses her husband goodbye and, as he's driving away, calls out something to the effect of, "Check your phones - I sent you a private video...but don't do it when anyone else is around".

I just sat there thinking, "Really? REALLY?". Wow.

And the ads that show kids being snotty/disrespectful/disobedient drive me right up the wall. What kind of company thinks that's good/funny? Not a company I'd buy anything from. But hey, it's all about the *edginess*.

Posted by: Cass at May 1, 2013 12:22 PM

That's why I DVR. I get all the *edginess* I need from standing on my deck after having too many beers.
Although I have to admit to an affinity for Sonic commercials. (Sorry for the commercial on the second one...who the fuck puts a commercial on a commercial!!!!!!)

Posted by: DL Sly at May 1, 2013 12:43 PM