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

One study conducted by Swami and Smith (2012), investigated the impact of a lifestyle television program that seeks to promote positive body image through the use of “real women” in comparison to a program that emphasizes the thin ideal. Participants in both experimental groups reported more negative body-focused anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction after watching the programs. Therefore, these “real women” television programs that are thought to evoke positive feelings toward women’s body image actually have the same aversive impact as television programs that promote the thin ideal.
 The authors suggest one possible explanation for their results is that when “real” women are used in these TV programs, they remind women of the difficulties in achieving the thin ideal. This subsequently activates a higher self-awareness and fear of fatness, resulting in an increase in body-focused anxiety and body weight dissatisfaction. Although this study did not investigate the impact of the Dove campaign explicitly, the results and discussion are generalizable to Dove’s ads because they share the same goal as lifestyle television programs.

Heiss (2011) leveled a strong critique with specific regard to Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, drawing on feminist-disability theory, a framework to analyze and critique social systems and material practices that stigmatize certain kinds of bodily variations (i.e., people with disabilities). The key motives are forging positive identities and promoting the inclusion of women with disabilities in mainstream society. Heiss argues that these types of campaigns whose aim is to promote positive body image in fact represent an ideology of “naïve integration”. This type of ideology espouses an acceptance of diverse body types, but at the same time reflects traditional beauty standards. For example, Dove sought to challenge dominant beauty norms by depicting "real" women with "real" curves in their advertisements. However, it is argued that these “real” women appear similar enough to pre-existing ideals that they too would be accepted by most beauty standards, suggesting a failure on Dove’s account to truly widen the definition of beauty. Furthermore, she argues that in neglecting to include a woman with a disabled body in their campaign ad, Dove fails to ascribe value to certain (“very real”) body types and instead reinforces traditional understandings of the body and of beauty. This is evident in Dove’s casting calls, which read: no tattoos, no scars, flawless skin, beautiful hair, and bodies that fall nicely between “not too curvy” and “not too athletic” (Odell, 2010). Moreover, there have also been claims that Dove engages in digital re-touching of their ad campaigns (Helm, 2008), explicitly in contradiction of their ad campaign’s message. Heiss (2011) suggests that these campaigns turn instead to an ideology of pluralism, which reflects respect for cultural diversity and encourages people to maintain their unique subjectivities, for example, with respect to disabilities. The adoption of this ideology could be achieved through the inclusion of a woman with a disability in one of Dove’s advertising campaigns.

Though few may describe Dove as “representing an ideology of naïve integration”, many people certainly feel the same way, recognizing that Dove promotes both positive body image but also traditional beauty standards. In other words, the Campaign for Real Beauty can be viewed as being hypocritical, which may lead people to experience cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, consumers might purchase Dove because it promotes a good message; on the other hand, they might question exactly what they are purchasing (skin firming lotion?). However, any dissonance in this case may be fairly easily resolved; consumers can relieve their cognitive dissonance by reasoning that there is nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, and at least they are supporting a company with “good” values. We will now turn to the “ugly” side of Dove’s campaign, which may evoke uncomfortable feelings that are not so easily resolved.

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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