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

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.    

The Bad

Though we have discussed social comparison theory from the perspective of “the good” in Dove’s campaign, the story is unfortunately not that simple. We will now further our discussion and turn to how social comparison theory can also be understood and applied within the context of  “the bad”. Numerous studies have shown that adolescents look toward people that they see on TV to define what their own bodies should look like. The aversive impact is as follows: the more they compare themselves, the more they strive to be thin, the more they dislike their own bodies, and the more they engage in unhealthy behaviors (Botta, 1999). Furthermore, studies have shown that self-esteem can moderate the effect of social comparison on women’s body image (e.g., Jones & Buckingham, 2005). Due to these findings, many self-esteem initiatives have attempted to teach adolescent girls to avoid comparisons with models because they are fake, airbrushed, photo-shopped, and unhealthy. However, this potentially leaves young adolescent girls vulnerable to making comparisons with “real women”, such as those in Dove’s ad campaign. This prompts the question, “Could Dove’s ad campaign potentially be even more harmful than traditional ad campaigns?”—due to the fact that young girls may still feel like they are falling short in comparison to the “real women”, but have not been taught buffer techniques towards these types of ads. Moreover, it has been suggested that women viewing commercials that include average-sized models might experience greater self-awareness of their own bodies due to the explicit focus on “real” women, triggering a fear of fatness. Also, these women may still be reminded of the thin beauty ideal even when viewing average-sized models, heightening their general awareness of beauty ideals (Anschutz, Engels, Becker, & van Strien, 2009).

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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