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This week my inbox was flooded with emails from friends and acquaintances – who had forwarded me the link to the latest Dove “Real Beauty” video, highlighting the disconnect between women’s perceptions of their own attractiveness and how outsiders see them. The point of the video is to show that women are often too critical of their looks. I was glad to see how this video sparked important conversations in the blogosphere and social media. But there’s a dark side to Dove that many people are unaware of.

I had written a blog post about some problematic aspects of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign back in October 2008. Recently, while researching material for my feature-length documentary, I came across more evidence that supported my earlier points. Thing is – I’ve been reluctant to speak up about these issues for several reasons. The key ones:

  • Dove’s campaigns are the only ones that – at least on the surface – promote positive body image, in an ocean of toxic advertising set to make women feel insecure about their looks
  • I am acquainted with several people connected to Dove’s Real Beauty campaign – they’re good-intentioned people I deeply respect and admire.
  • I actually really like Dove’s videos

So, I considered these issues and thought about the latest email I received from my friend S. I wondered, would she feel that same way if she knew the other side of the story? My hunch: probably not. Staying quiet would be the easy thing to do. But is it the right thing to do?

So, without further ado, I am addressing the big elephant in the room. Below you will find my original post about Dove – with some tweaks and updates reflecting new evidence I recently discovered.

About three months ago, upon completing the first phase of research for my film, I held two slideshow presentations in front of an audience of friends, acquaintances, and a few people working in the TV/movie industry in Paris. Very much in the style of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

At the heart of the presentation is the assertion that the obsession over the pursuit of the perfect female body is one of the integral parts of the capitalist system. If women were suddenly content with their appearance – accepting their body size, skin tone, wrinkles, graying hair, and the size and shape of their breasts, amongst other things – entire industries would collapse. Indeed worldwide revenues for cosmetics, dieting products, and cosmetic surgery totaled almost 500 billion dollars in 2006. Thus the saturation of images in advertising and mass media promoting an idealized, surgically-enhanced beauty that is impossible to achieve.

Well, during my presentations I would invariably get asked about the company Dove and its campaign for “Real Beauty.” Wasn’t that refreshingly positive? People would ask. It is a question that comes up every time I talk about my project. The short answer? Yes and no.

The people at Dove have actually exploited a void in the marketplace. By introducing so-called women with “real” bodies, they distinguished themselves from their competitors. According to the New Yorker, after the introduction of their “Real Beauty” campaign, Dove’s sales shot up 700% in the U.K.

The problem(s) with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign:

#1 – Dove’s parent company is Unilever, maker of Axe, Fair & Lovely and Slim-Fast

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign has criticized advertising and mass media with videos like “Evolution” (about digital retouching) and “Onslaught” (about the effects of toxic media messages on young girls).

Brilliant, borderline Machiavellian marketing move? Dove’s parent company Unilever also owns the Axe line (Lynx in the UK) of men’s care products. And Axe / Lynx’s brand identity is all about the unabashed objectification of women. Their ads are so outrageous they are often banned, achieving cult-like status. I highly recommend you watch Dove’s Onslaught PSA – slogan: “talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does” – before you see the clips below.

Some recent examples – from the UK:

Watch “Lynx Rise” on YouTube – link opens in a new window.

Watch “Lynx Jet” on YouTube – link opens in a new window.

Update: I just found a clip from the communications agency responsible for the Lynx Jet campaign. They are gloating about all the press they received following accusations of sexism. Starts at 2:40: click here to see the video.

If you can’t read the small type, it says: “Controversy is a measure of success!”

Unilever also owns Fair and Lovely – a line of skin-whitening creams sold in India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The commercials – running on borderline racist themes – always feature unhappy, socially rejected women and men with a dark skin color, who are magically transformed into popular people after using “Fair and Lovely” skin-whitening cream. The ultimate message is that a lighter skin tone gets them the object of their affection and/or a top job. An example from the Middle East:

Watch “Fair and Lovely” on YouTube – link opens in a new window.

Up until a few years ago, big corporations like Unilever could be reassured by the fact that their campaigns in faraway lands were limited to those markets. If you were American, the only way you could see an Indian commercial would be to go to India. Well, thanks to the magic of YouTube – and sometimes the help of Google Translate – you can easily find commercials from all over the world. My latest find is this Dove India commercial about skin whitening deodorant – uploaded on Dove India‘s YouTube channel this past January:

Watch the ad for Dove’s “Skin Whitening Deodorant” on YouTube – link opens in a new window.

If you still had any doubts about Unilever’s business savvy, you should know that the company acquired Slim-Fast (maker of weight loss drinks) and Ben & Jerry‘s (high calorie ice cream) on the same day: April 12th 2000. Prudential Securities analyst John McMillin commented in the Wall Street Journal:

“The fact that one product makes you fat and one makes you thin is funny, but they didn’t say boo to address that.”

#2 – The people behind Dove’s Real Beauty ads are industry bigwigs, who are otherwise working as “Illusionists” on other campaigns

The ad agency Ogilvy and Mather, Annie Leibovitz, and the world’s highest paid photo retoucher Pascal Dangin are behind the ads (Leibovitz and Dangin took care of the print campaign).

To make you understand the scope and influence of Dangin’s work: in the March 2008 issue of Vogue US Dangin retouched 144 images – the cover, 36 fashion pictures, and 107 ads for his clients.

#3 – The Dove Real Beauty print ads are Photoshopped

As you know, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign rose to prominence thanks to its “Evolution” PSA about photo retouching. The video ends on the message: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”

Well, in a New Yorker profile of photo retoucher Pascal Dangin (in the May 12th 2008 issue), reporter Lauren Collins questioned him about the Dove campaigns:

I mentioned the Dove ad campaign that proudly featured lumpier-than-usual “real women” in their undergarments. It turned out that it was a Dangin job. “Do you know how much retouching was on that?” he asked. “But it was great to do, a challenge, to keep everyone’s skin and faces showing the mileage but not looking unattractive.

And to this I can only add: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”

Update: if you want to see what “Real Beauty” is really like, I highly recommend this slideshow from Visura Magazine, showcasing photographer Jodi Bieber’s “Real Beauty” project.