A misguided 'feel good' statement

17:00, Apr 11 2014
EMPOWERING OR CONDESCENDING? Dove's new ad tricks women into thinking a 'beauty patch' can solve low self-esteem.

For anyone familiar with the marketing strategy of Dove, the mindlessness of their latest ad campaign will come as no surprise. For years now, they've been operating with the kind of offensive conceit that positions themselves as saviours of women; we are the docile cows suddenly liberated from factory farms, brought back to life by the empowering strains of each other's joyful moos as they echo through the green paddocks of freedom.

'Patches', the latest offering in Dove's catalogue of increasingly dramatic campaigns, focuses on a medicated arm patch that claims to help women begin the important process of Loving Themselves. Through a series of video diaries that viewers are expected to believe are real, we watch as a group of women (with the power of Dove's specially formulated sticky bandaid) turn from faded, drooping weeds suffocated by self-doubt into the kind of vibrant, exotic flowers suddenly brave enough to perform revolutionary acts like wearing sleeveless tops and talking to attractive male colleagues. Based on these comprehensive scientific findings, the women all agree that they would definitely give Dove money to further explore this rare experiment of not hating themselves.

But - SPOILER! - Dove has a surprise in store for our completely random women who were in no way employed by the company to shill body lotion!

The patch isn't even real!

It's a placebo designed to trick them into thinking their self-worth is increasing - but you guys, they didn't even need it because they did it all by themselves through the power of suggestion.


When they hear this, some of the women start crying, probably because they've realised they're going to be used in a meaningless but aggressive international ad campaign and, instead of money, they'll be paid in 'good feels'.

As the ad comes to a close, its tagline rolls appears on a white screen.

"Beauty is a state of mind."

All of which begs the question of why, if Dove really believes that beauty is a state of mind, their main objective continues to be to sell beauty and hygiene products that are largely inessential. Should we feel free to stop purchasing Dove's deodorant because, in a series of highly manipulative and condescending ad campaigns, they've pretended they think we're fine just the way we are?

Of course not. But thanks to the overwhelming success of You Go Girl Feminism, Dove's marketing strategists are still able to peddle the myth that empowering women is their main objective, with handsome profits a flattering but unnecessary coincidence. (What doesn't seem coincidental is the fact these same expectations are made of women - that we provide and sacrifice because we are invested in nurturing, not financial gain. This is supposed to be the feminine way and so ultimately, this is what is supposed to make us trust Dove all the more.)

But so transparently cynical has Dove's view of women become that it seems they think their target audience is so stupid we won't even remember that they're in the business of profit. Nor do they expect us to question how their so-called empowerment values mesh with the fact their parent company, Unilever, is responsible not just for the Axe brand (known for its asinine and sexist advertising campaigns) but also for Slim-Fast, a series of products that promises to help the consumer 'lose weight and look great' in record time.

Unfortunately, this is what the corporate exploitation of feminism amounts to in 2014. Objectification is no longer treated as the problem, nor is it as aggressively targeted for dismantling. Instead, we're encouraged to simply widen this external, approving gaze to include more diverse examples of women. This is supposed to 'empower' us all, and in turn liberate us from the 'unrealistic expectations of the beauty industry'.

How? By conveniently creating an even larger market for said industry to exploit and manipulate?

Let's be clear. Demanding that diversity be celebrated, valued and respected in public life - hell, that it actually be VISIBLE in the same way conventional bodies are given the space to be - is not the same thing as capitulating to the status quo by begging to be included in its rituals of objectification.

It is true that it's a travesty so many of us make our way through the world feeling like we aren't good enough or beautiful enough to be considered an equal member of it. But it's also an outrage that women have been taught to measure our self-worth against how beautiful we perceive ourselves to be. The solution to that can't be focused on teaching women how to 'feel beautiful' because beauty, and the obsession with it, is what's been so successful in clipping our wings.

As the press release sent out with 'Patches' asserts, "Dove is committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety and imagines a world where women would not need a beauty patch to feel beautiful."

All women, corporate feminism tells us, have the right to feel beautiful. But this is nothing more than an empty phrase designed to keep us distracted from the real goals of liberation. What women have the RIGHT to feel is respected, safe, valued, and equal - to know that our contributions to the world aren't judged in accordance with how attractive or pleasing our physical appearance is to other people, and to actually be liberated from the mental detritus of worrying about it at all.  

Rather than empowering women, Dove creates a facade of a world in which we all hate ourselves. And once it's established this as fact, it profits by offering itself up as the solution to this self hatred. Women, so hopeless on our own and suffocated by our own inadequacies, need Dove to teach us how to be whole again. We mustn't think of them as trying to sell us a product. They're empowering us.

And this is the final insult - that the status quo continues to deem impossible the idea that anyone, let alone women, could successfully make beauty a theoretical idea instead of a fundamental right. And so it co-opts the language of liberation once again, and controls us while pretending to set us free.

Why indeed. Beauty might be a state of mind, but its attractions are few and far between.