Earlier this week, a video produced by Dove was making the internet rounds and sparking all kinds of debate in its wake. In it, a sketch artist drew two versions of the same woman – one as described by herself and one as described by her friend. The resulting disparities between the two sketches were meant to show how skewed the woman’s perspective of her appearance is, and that she is more beautiful than she thinks herself to be. If you are one of the five people on the internet who has not seen the video yet, you can watch it below.
Response to the video quickly fell into two camps: one that found its message inspiring and uplifting, and one that found its message troubling. (I am not going to rehash the criticisms here. Instead I will point you here and here and here.)
Now, I have a confession to make. I did not care at all about this ad. I only watched it after people began criticizing it, and even then it was just to understand what was going on. Perhaps this is a function of what Autumn at the Beheld has termed “beauty privilege,” in that I adhere closely enough to our culture’s beauty standards – tall, white, thin, blonde, able-bodied, etc. etc. – but I don’t really feel a lot of anxiety over my beauty or lack thereof. (I know, a woman who likes her face and admits so in public, on the internet even, SOMEBODY STONE ME, QUICKLY.) I suspect this is why I didn’t really feel the need to watch a video that was all about how I am more beautiful than I know, and why even after watching it, it didn’t really do that much for me.
But that doesn’t mean that I am some kind of superheroic media critic who can fly faster than a viral internet advertising campaign and deconstruct the semiotics of a print ad in a single bound. It just means that the Dove campaign didn’t hit me in my emotional sweet spot. On the contrary, if we had been talking about Nike’s online campaign aimed at female athletes, I would have had a totally different reaction. Take, for instance, their series of videos showing female Olympians training in a CrossFitt-esque setting while the Noisettes’ “Don’t Give Up” plays in the background. Check it out:
I eat that shit up with a spoon so big the Statue of Liberty could use it.
And what about this print ad campaign from 2006?
I know that I’m not the only woman who loved this series of ads. The ads took attributes that we as women are used to hearing need to be changed – big butts, thunder thighs, “manly” shoulders – and instead, it celebrates them.
So I get why the Dove ad campaign was celebrated by so many women. To be exposed to advertising is to be forced to weather an onslaught of fear and anxiety and messages about how we all but flat-out suck and the only thing that will save us from sucking so hard is buying these shoes and that cream and this diet food and so on and so forth. As result, when any advertiser presents us with a message that deviates from that – and not only that, but actually goes a little further and praises us – well, it’s not hard to understand why so many of us have positively rosy feelings towards these corporations.
Let us not forget that these are still corporations, though, and what they are aiming to do is sell us on their products by associating something more ineffable with them: an image, a sensibility, self-esteem, physical empowerment. The idea is that if that association between the ineffable and the concrete product becomes strong enough, we will become loyal customers. We may not want to financially support companies that can barely disguise their loathing for us, but we will buy beauty products from the company that thinks we are beautiful just as we are (which, surely I am not the only one to note the contradiction in terms here?) and we will buy shoes and t-shirts from the company that wants us to feel like we can kick the world’s ass with one hand tied behind our backs (even as a Nike-contracted factory in Indonesia literally kicks its workers’ asses.)
That we might come away from consuming these marketing campaigns with feelings of inspiration and excitement is secondary to their ultimate purpose, which is to get us to buy things.
The reality is that the things these advertising campaigns want us to experience – physical power, self-esteem, accomplishment, self-love, a sense of self-worth – these are things that cannot be purchased. It does not matter if you have more money than George Soros and the Koch brothers combined. The emotional states these advertising campaigns are trying to arouse in us cannot be bought, not if we want them to count.
And that is the real problem with positive advertising, the reason why part of me will always cut major side-eye to even the most inspirational marketing campaign. At its core, all advertisers want us to do is buy into their mythology and their self-generated images, which they hope will in turn become profits to add to their bottom line. They enlist brilliant creative minds and psychologists and research teams, all with the goal of making the dollars flow from your bank account into theirs.
Now, does this mean I think that we should never buy anything? Nope. Does this mean I think we should never allow ourselves to feel anything when we watch advertising? No way. (Seriously, I defy anyone to watch this legendary VW Cabrio commercial and not feel the goosebumps raise all over your body.) Just as some advertising can be utterly revolting in its gross offensiveness, other advertising can be funny or beautiful or even touching, and it’s okay to feel that way about it. But just because an ad is able to make us feel good and beautiful, it doesn’t mean we should allow it to overcome our ability to think critically about it.