Teaching Feminism and Body Image: What is Dove Really Selling?

Yesterday, during a lesson on persuasive rhetorical techniques, I showed my students a number of commercials, asking them whether the technique used was Logos, Ethos, or Pathos.  Along with this, I asked them what the ad was trying to sell, what it claimed about the product, if there was any bias present, etc.  A friend pointed me to the Dove Evolution commercial as an example of using Logos, or logic, to persuade an audience.  The commercial can be seen below, and you’ll need to watch it before you read on:

As soon as I saw this, I was totally ready to show it to my classes.  Not only is it a great example of Logos, but it has a great message, too.  A double-whammy!  I was expecting all sorts of teachable moments today when they saw the photo-shopping of the image and were as astounded as I was that this can be done, and is done all the time.  I expected to launch into an interesting conversation about the persuasive nature of magazine images in general, and how they persuade young people to be unhealthy to get closer to that unattainable ideal.

While there was quite a bit of that going on yesterday, and the students’ outrage at being “tricked” by the media was heartwarming, the initial response I received to the question about what product was being sold was interesting.

To me, this commercial is clearly “selling” Dove’s self esteem workshops, which I think are brilliant and necessary (although, I must admit, I haven’t done much research into them).  When I asked my students what this commercial was selling, they instantly said: “Dove soap.”

Is this because the commercial is unclear?  Did they tune out before the end of it?  Did I see it because this issue is constantly at the front of my mind, but maybe it isn’t at the front of theirs?  Or is this their mature and acute cynicism of the advertising industry showing through?  Did they think outside of the box to note that this commercial and the self-esteem workshops actually do promote Dove products (if they do these good things, their product must be worthy of buying)?

I don’t know, but I do know that it made me look at Dove – and any other corporation-sponsored initiative – a little differently.

How do you feel about the Dove self esteem initiative?  Leave thoughts in the comments.

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17 thoughts on “Teaching Feminism and Body Image: What is Dove Really Selling?

  1. Your students were right on the money, Ashley, literally. This commercial is all about selling Dove soap! Dove, like many corporations, is taking advantage of a trend in public opinion which is demanding more corporate responsibility; they’re trying to position themselves as an ethical company with campaigns like this so that when people are standing in the grocery store trying to decide what soap they want to buy, they go “oh, I’ll get Dove, they have self esteem campaigns!”

    Profits are not just the main concern of every corporation, they’re also a legal responsibility for a publicly traded company. Companies must look after the interests of their shareholders, and campaigns like this are simply another example of cynical advertising. (Just like slathering “green” and “environmentally friendly” all over product labeling.)

    I wrote about this recently in “Campaigning For What, Exactly“, discussing the Campaign For Real Beauty. It’s also worth noting that Unilever, Dove’s parent company, is pretty evil.

  2. Splinteredones on

    I agree. The implication in my mind is look at what Dove Soap can do for this woman! I should go out and buy some!

    At the same time I’m thinking gee I never knew that Dove was doing work to help the self-esteem of girls. I had better rush to support them and go buy.

    Call it cynicism. At the same time that they SAY they are advocating for realism in body portrayal the fact of the matter is that their stuff changed this woman’s appearance dramatically BEFORE the photo-shopping was gotten to.

    I will probably go to the grocer’s and stand in front of Dove’s stuff for a long, long time today. Whether I choose to support them is at the moment anybody’s guess!

  3. Joanne on

    I agree, your students are right on target. Remember, this is also the company that markets numerous “anti-aging” products to women. None, to my knowledge, have been proven to work. But they do reinforce and perpetuate our obsession with youthful beauty–as we know, a major part of self-esteem issues for women.

  4. Yes, obviously they’re selling a product but at least they’ve chosen to do it in a way that celebrates real beauty not airbrushed, commercial beauty. Maybe I’m naive but I refuse to look at this ad in a jaded, cynical way. Sorry, won’t do it.

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  6. Great post, Ashley!

    You may be interested in my old blog post about Dove, up on the Illusionists blog. The title is pretty self explanatory: “An Egregious Example of Corporate Hypocrisy: Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign”

    http://aseachange.com/blog-illusionists/2008/10/an-egregious-example-of-corporate-hypocrisy-doves-real-beauty-campaignuponco/

    I have a friend in London who’s working on a PhD about this very issue: companies that set up “ethical” campaigns whose ultimate goal may actually point to marketing and brand awareness.

    Keep up the great work!

  7. Marcy on

    Of course they’re trying to sell a product. Any for-profit company has to look for profits. I don’t know why we try to make businesses do things that are irrational for them. Charities do things for the good of the people. Businesses try to sell a product.

    But at least this one is doing so in a slightly better way than most others. That ad sends a VERY powerful message to young girls about not believing the pictees they see in billboards and magazines, etc. I’m glad SOMEONE is getting that message out. It’s the same Aa Glamour using more average-sized women as their models. Their ultimate goal is to sell more magazines, but they’re doing it in a better way by not contributing to this crazy unrealiatic beauty culture we have.

    I don’t use many Dove products — I’ve darted choosing ones from companies that focus on environmental responsibility (like Pangea), which is still this se thing– enticing ppl to buy their product bc they’re doing a good thing. I don’t see why we need to demonize companies that are making SOME effort to send positive messages like this.

  8. Dove does its job well. It put the brand name at the beginning of the ad, in a weird way that made you pay attention to it. As you’re watching, you’re thinking about Dove. Then they show their brand name and logo after the video. Again, they’ve put the brand name in your mind.

    When you go to the store, you’re going to remember the name “Dove.”

    When you tell your friends about this cool ad, you’re going to remember the name “Dove,” and say it to your friends, and then next time they go to the store, they’re going to remember the name “Dove.”

    Yes, they are doing something good by showing us the Photoshopping, but they’re doing it because it will make you remember their unusual ad, and it will make you think they’re better than the other guy. Yes, Dove also had the campaign with the “real” models, but don’t try to tell me those models were not airbrushed and professionally styled and made-up.

    (‘Tis a sad world we live in…)

    As to whether your students were keenly perceptive or completely not paying attention, I don’t know. They may be so used to ads that they just looked at the brand name and tuned out the rest, so when you asked them what the ad was for, they just said the brand name because that’s how TV ads work. Or maybe they saw it all, but understood that for-profit companies are not selfless, and if they’re doing this ad they’re doing it to get something out of it.

    Great lesson, though! More teachers need to do stuff like this.

  9. It’s interesting and I can’t help but wonder if there are times when we just need to take the good with the questionable. Yes, at the end of the day Dove is a corporation and their ultimate goal is profits but at what point do we take their possibly less than altruistic efforts for the benefits that we can reap. Just as they are taking advantage of our desire for positive messages to sell us soap, why as consumers shouldn’t we take advantage of their self-esteem initiative to create programs and benefits for our children and communities. As a therapist who owns her own practice I have to say that it is a fine line we walk as businesses who want to do good (assuming that’s what Dove wants). There is an interesting thing that happens to most of us when money comes into play, somehow making money while trying to do good deeds is often seen as questionable. Ultimately I think we have to be a little less cynical and accept that making a profit for your business and doing good for others do not have to be mutually exclusive goals.

    Now on the other side of it, I do agree that as a corporation that also sells anti-aging and other products that perpetuate the same issues that their self-esteem programs are combating is hypocritical. But I am going to echo Danine and choose to start 2010 with a hopeful view of this ad and our society.

  10. This is a great post, and I am so happy to hear you shared the Dove ad with your students. It is so important to teach Media Literacy to our kids, and get them thinking about, not just absorbing, advertising. I have mixed feelings about the Dove Real Beauty campaign, but for the most part I find it favorable towards women, views on beauty, and self-esteem. I believe they are trying to create a “culture of positive self-image” when it comes to beauty. And facial soap. I think they are doing good work for young girls, which is where my passion lies.

    I would argue that a for-profit company can have altruistic intentions and simultaneously sell a product. I have a t-shirt company for girls with the motto to “Redefine Girly” and change the way our culture looks at girls. My company’s main goal is to end hypersexualization of clothes and toys for girls. So yes, I sell my shirts for a profit, but like Dove, am working hard to make a social change.

    What a great lesson for your students!

  11. Unilever, “working hard to make a social change”? Unilever, who push skin whitening creams with racist advertisements, who sell Axe/Lynx with gobsmacking misogyny and objectification, who hawk Slim-Fast, who say Bom Chicka Wow Wow and Can’t You Feminists Take a Joke? and I Wish Girls Were More Like Pot Noodle?

    Which social change are they working for?

    They make money. That’s it. They’ve co-opted (and slimmed, and smoothed, and prettified, and diluted) feminist-speak in order to sell product to a particular target market. Faith in corporate goodwill is perhaps understandable, but misplaced.

    And I’m really glad these students are seeing through it.

  12. Allie on

    At the end of it all, I can never forgive them for running the Campaign for Real Beauty as a means of selling firming cream. I’m not surprised by it, yet I’m shocked by their nerve to be so ironic. Lauredhel says it perfectly: they’ve co-opted feminist speak and fixed it up so it won’t be threatening to their push to make money off of female insecurity. They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth, and it (like most media directed at women) reminds me of the really mean high school girl who pretends to be your friend to keep you off balance and trusting, offering to help you but really taking advantage of you.

  13. Audrey on

    While all advertising images of people are fake, what I find particularly unsettling is seeing so many women all made up to begin with. It’s very strange to go to a formal business event, and observe the glamorous made up faces of women, and then their dumpy husbands. What is this about really?

  14. Audrey on

    P.S. If Dove wanted to really be convincing, it wouldn’t show the made up image, but maybe what the workshops were really all about. It’s only soap.

  15. Nikki on

    let’s remember that the same marketing company that came up with the campaign for real beauty also does axe commercials.

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  17. Autumn on

    I used to think the whole Dove thing was brilliant- until I learned they have the same parent company as those Axe men’s products (with those crazy commercials) and wore, they were selling skin-lightening creams to women in southeast Asia and India, with horrible commercials to boot. I haven’t got a link, but the gist of the ad was the lighter girl gets the hot rich guy, while the darker girl is sad and alone until she uses this magical skin-lightening cream!

    I will never buy anything from Dove or Axe again, and Unilever is NOT womyn-friendly.

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  20. April on

    Not only does the same company own Dove and Ax. They also own Slim-Fast. Talk about sending mixed messages–and making money off of all of them!

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