This week, Dove threw itself a party.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of its "campaign for real beauty," the Unilever PLC-owned brand launched a short film (a.k.a. an eight-minute ad) at the Sundance Film Festival, called "Selfie." It featured real teenaged girls and their mothers talking about their insecurities, and about debunking beauty standards.
And it was terrible.
The video had girls and their mothers taking self-portraits together with their phone cameras. The "selfie" is a narcissistic scourge of social media and Oxford Dictionaries' 2013 word of the year. Even world leaders take them. They are an indulgence in which almost everyone with a camera participates. But in Dove's latest, selfies are reimagined as tools of empowerment.
"You have the power to change and redefine what beauty is," a professional photographer tells a group of girls in Massachusetts who are Dove's latest subjects. After a frank – and genuinely sad – discussion about the things they hate about themselves, the girls are given a mission: take selfies, and help their mothers take selfies. The photos are then put on display in a gallery-style exhibit, and onlookers leave sticky notes with compliments. The girls tell the camera that they were heartened by nice comments about their hair; by noticing they look nice in the pictures; and most depressingly, by realizing that nothing awful happened.
It is impossible not to be slightly pleased to see young girls hating themselves a little less. Dove's "film" has that; but little else worthwhile. It is long. It is preachy. And moreover, its central concept is deeply misguided.
At no point in the film does anyone raise a debate about the culture of the selfie, itself. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram are touted for how they give girls a platform to spread images of beauty on their own terms. But it fails to examine how the ubiquity of selfies has created an environment wherein girls and women are exposing their physical selves to even greater scrutiny than they already experience on a day-to-day basis. And it is encouraging them to turn that scrutiny on themselves more often as well, as they crop, delete, and place filters on photos of themselves in order to feel worthy of publication.
In short, the film – and its selfie exercise – only perpetuates the problem. Dove has held itself up as a champion of "real beauty" for a decade, but what is that worth if all it does is continue to teach women that they are at their core, ornamental? Equating beauty with a woman's value is the cosmetics industry's oldest trick, no matter how much Dove likes to set itself apart.
Unilever has frequently come under fire, rightly so, for hypocrisy: it criticizes an ad industry that makes objects out of women to sell one brand, while being a serial offender with its ads for Axe, which show women rendered mindless with lust by its scent. (Anyone who has observed a real woman's response to the smell of Axe knows just how laughable that is, but that's another matter.)
In 10 years, the "real beauty" campaign has also produced some excellent advertising – some of its most famous ads coming from Canada – that has actually suggested there should be new standards of beauty in beauty-product marketing.
The brightest spots of the newest "real beauty" video are the girls who point out that other girls' insecurities are the things that make them different, and therefore beautiful; or that the lack of racial diversity in the beauty industry is no standard to judge oneself by.
But "selfie" exposes the ugly side of a campaign that has gotten fundamentally lazy. After 10 years, shouldn't it be possible to stop with the head-patting reassurances to women that they are pretty? Shouldn't it be time that Dove stops presenting itself as the saviour of damaged women with no self-esteem?
The new video does get one thing right: social media are powerful. Consumers have a way to make their voices heard with unprecedented volume. But a branded exercise in selfies-as-self-esteem is no way to tap into that.
In November, I had the privilege of talking with a group of teenagers at a panel in Ottawa during Media Literacy week. Many of them voiced their frustrations with the onslaught of beauty messages they endure every day; and impatience with campaigns like Dove's from companies that only practice what they preach when they think the message will sell (and return to their old ways when it's time to market to teenage boys, for example.)
Those skeptical consumers are making themselves heard. If brands like Dove do not start talking about women's worth beyond their appearance, they should be cut out of the conversation.
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