The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign might be a less-than-perfect step forward for letting women recognize their own non-airbrushed bodies and faces in advertisements, but it’s come to my attention a couple of times recently that Dove’s parent company is also responsible for some ads based entirely on misogynistic stereotypes.
Unilever also makes:
Sunsilk – the haircare ads that feature blondes and brunettes catfighting. I think these hit on every really painful stereotype I heard on the school playground. I’m sure the ad’s makers would say, “Lighten up, it’s ironic!” but let’s talk about that: irony “is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is generally understood (either at the time, or in the later context of history).” What I “generally understand” is that people really believe haircolor stereotypes, and the ad reinforces them.
Lynx – a non-US brand (Australia, UK…?) of men’s deodorant which brought the internet a game in which you massage a woman in a bikini with your mouse cursor to prove you’re a “player” so you can, virtually, I guess, go to Miami. I urge you to read “The Player With a Thousand Faces“, in which Richie describes the game in detail, likening it (ironically!) to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and working in a Dr. Seuss version of some Snoop Dogg lyrics. You will laugh until milk comes out your nose. Also, Richie does a nice send-up of what folks like Sunsilk’s marketing team mistakenly think irony means with an early script leak from the non-existent film Ironic Bigotry Man.
And then there’s Axe, their other male deodorant line, which features ads with geeks using psychic powers to make out with very chic girls at clubs. This site seems to feature every Axe ad ever made, and believe me, there’s plenty to grit your teeth at. Then there’s the perplexing copy on their website: “In the film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves is given two choices. He can either take a blue pill and wake up in the morning as if nothing has happened or pop a red pill and enter the unpredictable ‘wonderland’ of the Matrix. As millions of guys around the world know, Axe has taken the red pill….First launched in France in 1983, Axe is now giving guys the edge in the mating game in more than 60 countries.” Okay, um, I really don’t know what the hell that was about, but I will say this – Dear Axe: your target audience does not wish they were Keanu Reeves. Signed, the 21st Century.
That aside, I can’t help but make the contrast: Dove deodorants are going to help women forgive themselves for looking normal, while Axe’s mission is to get dorky guys laid. (Or send them into a holographic world where they must sacrifice their lives so Larry Wachowski can afford to become a woman. Wonder if she’ll use Dove?)
Unilever also makes SlimFast, which now uses non-skinny people to advertise its diet aids. It sounds like a no-brainer, I know, but it took me a while in the 80’s to figure out why the hell some 85 pound woman needed Slimfast. Of course, if they make you think that even she needs Slimfast, then they’ve just enlarged their market share to include people who weigh 85 pounds and up. So after 20 years of Slimfast doing their best to screw up my childhood, they’re doing something they should have been doing all along.
All this is making me think of the nice guy paradox, of which Lindsay Beyerstein says:
“Often, the self-proclaimed nice guy wants special credit for just for being nice. It’s as if he wants you to exclaim, “Oh, you poor fellow. What a burden it must be to treat women as you’d like to be treated. Above and beyond, old chap. Above and beyond!” I’m all for niceness, but I consider it a basic moral requirement for all humans, not a special bonus feature.
Are we being too easy on Dove and Slimfast, giving them credit for using normal people like they should’ve been doing all along? Should we continue to be cynical until they take a few more steps in the right direction? Because when I look at Unilever as a whole, I see a strategy: Dove for the insecure woman who thinks she’s ugly, Sunsilk for the insecure woman who thinks she’s beautiful, Axe and Lynx because all men are presumed insecure, and Slimfast cagily being offered to people who still aren’t overweight.
This is not progress. This is just one more strategy, and if the Sunsilk/Lynx model works, Dove’s Real Beauty will be real history.