Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pseudoscience and the Beauty Complex in Advertizing Dove Soap

Dove soap has an online commercial that has gone viral, with over 11 million views in the 7 days since it has been released. It is discussed in the New York Times here. The crux of the commercial campaign is that only 4 percent of women consider themselves to be beautiful. Dove hired a "forensic composite artist" (the artists who draw faces of criminals for the law enforcement) to draw pictures of women in an experiment. First, and without seeing the women, he drew a portrait just from the a woman's own description. Then he mad another drawing based on another women's description of the first woman. All the while, the women were behind a screen, and not visible to the artist. The point of the ads is that the portraits are much more attractive when they are based on the description of others than when based on women's own descriptions.

The ad has obviously struck a nerve. Many women have low self-esteem. You hear women in the ad saying "My mother says I have a big jaw." And apparently women mentioned moles and scars more than others did. One woman in the commercial is teary-eyed when she realizes that a stranger described her as more beautiful than she had described herself.

(Full disclosure: I use Dove soap, having been recommended it as a milder "superfatted" soap by a doctor).

It is clear from the Dove videos that this was not really an experiment. The artist himself says he wants to change the way women see themselves. He, subconsciously if not consciously, most certainly made the second portrait more attractive. The artist says in the video that he was interested in doing the project for the sake of his two daughters: he obviously also sees the burden that women carry to be "beautiful," so it is clear that his drawings were not simply "objective" or neutral. Several women in the ads say they did not know what was going on, but that is irrelevant. The artist needed to be "blinded" or kept from knowing what the point of the experiment was, just as much as the women. In a controlled experiment, both the subjects and those running the experiment must be "blinded" (i.e. double-blind). The temptation for the artist to make the second portrait more beautiful, so as to fit his preconception, would have been very strong.

In addition, the women (and a few men) who described a woman were talking about someone they had just met. In the video, we see them say things like "cute nose" and "very nice blue eyes." But of course these people will be complementary. It is not realistic to expect strangers to describe someone they just met in a friendly social encounter with any negative language. Again, the experimental set-up is not designed to really create "objective" descriptions of a woman's looks. Even if the artist could be objective in his drawing, it would not be surprising that the second drawing would be, as one woman says about her own second portrait, "more open and friendly and ... happy."

In one of the videos, Melinda says "I think there's kind of a stigma around the word beautiful, feeling confident and using that word about yourself. We should put more energy on the things that we do like about ourself as opposed to the things that we don't." At first it sounds like good advice. But it also reflects contemporary infatuation with "self-esteem". When one thinks about this in terms of pre-WWII values, or Amish values, the notion of speaking of oneself as beautiful sounds vain and lacking in suitable humility. I don't think that the problem is that people don't say they are beautiful. They would be obnoxious if they did say that about themselves. The issue is, on the contrary, the fact that women are made to feel inadequate. And though it is common to blame one's mother, she is not the source of the pressure: it is the beauty industry.

Thus, the problem with these commercials is not only that they are bad "experiments" and bad social science. It is also that they whitewash the advertizing industry's and cosmetics industry's roles in creating this feeling of inadequacy in women. Everyone has to balance a feeling of being beauty with a more humble sense that being proud is obnoxious. But ads and magazines, with their impossible images of "beauty", create an unattainable standard for what is beautiful, impossible for 99.9 percent of women to achieve. It is not surprising, then, that women feel inadequate. Mothers may say things that reflect that standard and say hurtful things like "You have a big jaw," but they are only reflecting the standard created by industry. It is thus ironic, and a sad joke, that Dove tries to sell more soap by associating itself with a critique of what it (and its parent company, Unilever) have created with their relentless beauty advertizing. The ads suggest that this pressure on women, and the consequent loss of self-esteem, are simply caused by "society," or by mothers. They ignore the role that advertizing and cosmetics companies have played in emphasizing the dominant standard of beauty that torments the women in the commercials. The good news is that the millions of hits suggest people want something different. But if we don't see the role that advertizing plays in creating this unhappiness and low self-esteem, we will never free ourselves from the tyranny of the beauty complex.

1 comment:

JB said...

There is a column on Savage Minds ( that also deals with this commercials. See also the parodies of the commercial mentioned in its comments.