The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty


Within the context of body image, social comparison theory states that people will make automatic comparisons to people and images that they perceive to represent realistic goals to attain and be motivated to achieve these goals (Festinger, 1954). Following from this theory is the idea that our self-appraisals can be affected by others’ characteristics. For example, it has been shown that when psychological closeness is manipulated, whereby the subject and target share similar attitudes and values to a high degree, the subject’s self-appraisal is consequently more favorable after viewing an attractive same- sex target than after viewing an unattractive same- sex target- this is due to the virtue of perceived similarity to the target (Brown, Novick, Lord, & Richards, 1992). This effect has also been studied in terms of perceived similarity to a thin model, which found that women who perceived similarity with a thin model felt better about their bodies than those who did not perceive similarity (Young, Gabriel, & Sechrist, 2012). The notion of perceived similarity, within the context of social comparison theory, suggests that those who are considered similar are assimilated to the self. In relation to the Dove campaign, it could be assumed that these “real” women are perceived as overall similar, leading women to engage in these assimilative processes. This would result in women being more likely to report higher self-evaluations when the target has desirable traits and lower self-evaluations when the target has undesirable traits. Therefore, in assuming that these “real” women of the Dove campaign possess desirable traits, and these assimilative processes have occurred, the advertisements would have a positive effect on women’s self-appraisals, and generally make women feel good about themselves.

Beyond simply making people feel good about the company, what Dove has so successfully done is reframe the function of purchasing their beauty products and toiletries from one focused on utilitarian outcomes (such as the quality and price of the products – things that are virtually never mentioned in the ads) to one that is focused on expressing important values and connecting with others. In the attitudes literature, these are respectively known as the value expressive and social adjustment functions of attitudes (Katz, 1960; Smith et al., 1956). Feeling positively about Dove, and purchasing their products, allows women to show that they too believe society’s values regarding beauty need to change, from a focus on outer appearance and the “thin ideal”, to a focus on inner beauty and confidence. Evidence that the campaign has increased brand loyalty includes the fact that in 2006, two-thirds of Dove’s sales were generated by people who bought more than one Dove product, double the number from 2003, before the start of the campaign (Neff, 2006). Purchasing Dove products also enables customers to connect with the millions of women around the world who they see (either on television or online) responding in similarly positive ways to the campaign. One way in which people engage online is through Dove’s Self-Esteem Toolkit, another positive aspect of the campaign.

Dove’s Self-Esteem Toolkit is an online resource that includes workshops, activities, guides, and videos all aimed at building girls’ self-esteem. In addition to the online videos, these activities and workshops also reflect the advertising campaign’s mission, which is to redefine beauty. It is well known that self-esteem is linked to body image, particularly for adolescent girls (but also for adolescent and adult males, e.g., Choma et al., 2010, Petrie et al., 2010, and older women, e.g., Marshall, Lengyel, & Utioh, 2012).  For example, Etcoff and colleagues (2004) found that 6 out of 10 teenage girls believed they would be happier if they were thinner. Research has shown that the internalization of the thin ideal can occur as early as three years old (in a sample of US girls; Harriger et al., 2010), and it has thus been recommended that programs aimed at countering such ideas (for example, by having girls argue against the thin ideal, see Stice et al., 2006), be implemented as early as possible (Grogan, 2010). This is recognized by Dove, for example, in their “Onslaught” video which ends by encouraging parents to “talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does” and provides links to their online resources aimed at helping parents initiate such conversations. As positive as this message may seem, there may also be some downsides to Dove’s initiatives, which we turn to now.    

From the editors

Angela Celebre and Ashley Waggoner Denton’s article was very thought provoking. In reading the title, I made some initial evaluations about the ad campaign, in my mind, before reading the article. Then, reading through their article, I expanded my thoughts and feelings toward the ad campaign. Given the evidence presented from previous studies, I am now unsure about how I feel about the campaign overall. What do you think? It is interesting how social psychological concepts can have simultaneously good and bad effects, as elicited through ad campaigns. Does “the good” outweigh “the bad”?

In analyzing “the good” of the ad campaign, Celebre and Denton apply the concept of social comparison. They suggest, and provide empirical support, for the idea that self-evaluations are higher when a target model is deemed more similar to the self. As such, it is important that “realistic” body type examples of women are displayed positively. I think this is an important point, as women represented in music, tv, and movies often set an unrealistic standard to compare oneself to. In addition, women that would be considered “real” often play negative roles in such media. I feel like these ads and proper, positive depictions of women of all sorts can have positive effects for society in general. They give girls and boys a positive image of women which could change public perceptions of “ideal” bodies and women and perhaps positively affect the treatment of women in society. What other positive societal outcomes may arise from such depictions?

On the other hand, “the bad”, as suggested by Celebre and Denton, is that these sorts of campaigns depicting the “real woman” can also have negative effects on body satisfaction in women (young and old). This makes sense to me, as well. As noted, some women and girls may still not live up to the standards depicted. A shocking note in this piece suggests that the Dove campaign was still very restrictive in casting! Moreover, the campaign may serve as a reminder of the thin body ideal. This is one point that struck me while reading this article. By using the term “real women”, it almost seems as if it might be increasing the salience of the difference between “most women” and “truly beautiful women”. A reminder that they might be “uglier” than what the majority of the media deems “ideal”. This may not be the case for most women, but it is something that came to my mind while reading this piece. What do you think about this issue? Further, I would wonder who gets to decide what a “real” woman is. Aren’t all women “real” women?

Finally, Celebre and Denton discussed “the ugly” of the ad campaign. Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns other brands like Axe. Therefore, on the one hand, Dove is trying to empower women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicity, but on the other hand, Unilever is potentially objectifying women in the Axe campaigns. One must ask at this point, is it all about the money? In my opinion: Of course it is. However, does it matter? Many social scientists agree that the idea of pure altruism does not exist. That is, deep down, all helpful or positive behaviors (particularly from corporations in the business of making money) have selfish motives. Ask yourself, though, if they are doing good and increasing some women’s self-image, does it really matter what their motives are? How else can the dissonance that results in learning about the Dove and Axe campaigns be reduced? I would like to hear your take in the comments section on this and the other issues raised in the article.

Adam Fetterman
Associate Editor

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