The Unilever Family of Ads – the irony’s not where they think

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.

Comments

  1. MaggieCat says

    Well, it’s not really their fault. After Irony was torn to shreds on the stand during the 1995 case People for the Ethical Treatment of Grammar v. Alanis Morissette he took to drinking and really let himself go.

    Clearly Irony needs to find a good PR agency to rehabilitate his image.

    .

    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.

    And they’ve managed to intensify the pressure on people who may actually need to lose weight. (Although the specifics of that category will be forever debated.) Because if even the skeletal looking models are on a diet, that means it’s completely your fault if you’re overweight, and to hell with you if you don’t agree. Add in the likelihood of long term significant weight loss from Slimfast or any other instant diet aid, and you’ve just created a lifetime customer who’ll spend the next 20 years yo-yoing up and down, but always coming back.

  2. SunlessNick says

    Lynx ads in the UK feature “psychic powers” of their own (well, they’re more like super-tech I suppose) – spraying Lynx around turning women into sex-kittens.

    Examples include:

    A guy sprays it into a fountain, and a businesswoman dives in and starts dancing.

    A guy (in the countryside) sprays a patch of mud, and two women out horseriding dive off their horses, into the patch, and start mud-wresting.

    A father borrows his son’s Lynx, at which point the son’s girlfriend goes for him (he comments that he “loves this country”).

    There are several ads with variations on the theme of a guy spraying himself and getting multiple women (with the slogan “Spray more, get more”).

    But I presume that’s ironic too. At least for sufficiently wrong definitions of irony.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    LOL, Maggie, @ your remarks about irony. And you’re right – despite what everyone likes to believe, dieters almost always yo-yo, so SlimFast always has an audience, but it’s probably entirely comprised of (1) people who are quite healthy and better off NOT trying to lose those bits of flab they feel so awful about and (2) people who do need to lose weight, but with something a lot healthier than SlimFast.

    I drank a SlimFast once. Spent hours with stomach cramps that made me wish I could yak it all up, but I couldn’t. I don’t know what’s in that shit, but I don’t think it’s good.

    Nick, it’s interesting that when they do ads like this, the female products turn men into dishwashing slaves but the male products turn women into vapid, unfaithful sleaze.

  4. sbg says

    I drank a SlimFast once. Spent hours with stomach cramps that made me wish I could yak it all up, but I couldn’t. I don’t know what’s in that shit, but I don’t think it’s good.

    I always read labels now. If I can’t pronounce more than 1/5th of the ingredients listing of a product, I put it back. ;)

    There will always be at least some questionable motive with advertising, I think. They are, after all, trying to dupe you into buying their product, even if it’s a good product. It’s their JOB to make you believe, by whatever means they can. Is Unilever preying on women with the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign? Perhaps.

  5. scarlett says

    Nick, you forgot the Click ad where Ben Affleck carries around a clicking device he hits everytime a woman notices him, only to be outdone by a weedy-looking guy! Or was that just an Australian ad?

    initially I found the Lynx ads amusing but the more they went along, the more I realised they’re about telling guys ‘do/buy this and you’ll get the gorgeous girl’, where the equivilant for women is ‘do/buy this and you’ll BE the gorgeous girl’.

  6. Cat says

    I know this is a years old post, but I just wanted to note that Lynx and Axe are the same product – they have different names in different countries.

  7. toomanynouns says

    Unilever also owns several brands of skin whitening creams, if you want to add some old-fashioned racism to your list.

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