Sunday, April 21, 2013

Viral "Dove Real Beauty Sketches" Ad a Manipulative Disservice

"Jenise" in self- & stranger-described drawings from Dove ad
The "Dove Real Beauty Sketches" ad that's gone viral on YouTube is one of those sappy, group-hug efforts that supposedly aims to bolster women's self esteem--perhaps too much.

A forensic sketch artist sits behind a curtain and draws the faces of women from descriptions he hears on the other side. His first rendering comes from the subject's description of herself, and the second from the observations of someone who talked with her for a few minutes. The emotional moment when the subject compares the two sketches to realize she described herself as less-attractive than the new "friend" did is supposed to teach her to value herself more.

With 13 million views and counting, plus news articles and Facebook re-posts, Dove has a publicity hit, so I applaud its advertising success--but I have big problems with its message.

Set aside its manipulative emotionalism, too-close camerawork, weird massage-room background muzak and tedious length, and look at its goal, to elevate women's self-esteem by showing them they're more beautiful than they believe. Sounds good--but what if that goal were achieved? What if the subjects bragged like the men in this excellent parody by New Feelings Time? Stuff like:

"Everyone says my eyes sparkle and light up a room."

"I'm so lucky my nose is cute, the kind people pay big bucks to plastic surgeons for."

"My teeth are straight from orthodontia and really white because I bleach them."

"Men tell me my lips are really kissable."

What kind of woman would that be? Even if she were accurate, we'd think her a narcissist. Humility and modesty are a good thing, and portraying oneself as less attractive than you are to a stranger would be the healthy response to the situation.

Same guy, self- & stranger-described, from parody on male real beauty

Of course, the male parody's guys are more boastful than 95% of men would be. Men, like their female counterparts, would likely downplay their good features. And a large swath of men don't evaluate their faces much at all, other than what they need to know to avoid slicing off their noses when they shave.

An article about the campaign in the New York Times says the Unilever-owned Dove based the concept on its research showing only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. They say they want to "create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety." Sounds laudable, but how about a world where values and achievements are a source of confidence, and beauty isn't the first and foremost means by which women are judged?

What about the useful maxim, "beauty is only skin-deep?" Kindness, now that's something to promote as a source of well-being.

The problem is that everybody's getting older, and sooner or later, everyone gets ugly. That is, if you judge the person on her externals. Admittedly, I'm as vain and caught up in our society's responses to physicality as most women are. But creams and even Dove soap are less able to freshen my appearance as the years mount. Will I be "more beautiful than I think" at age 80, as the tag line of the ad suggests? Women judged beautiful at 80 are no longer held to the standard of smooth skin, lithe muscles or model-esque features.  The wise ones step back and see their lives in the context of those they touched and their accomplishments. Most of us step back and still feel inside like we're the same children we always were, insecure and striving to please.

But our looks are just part of a much larger picture of self-esteem. Ask all the actresses and models, whose desperation to compete in a hopelessly perfect realm drives them to plastic surgery, eating disorders and psychological frenzy. "Who is wealthy?" asks a famous Jewish traditional source. The query might as well be, "who is a beautiful woman?" because the same answer applies to both questions: "She who rejoices in her portion." In other words, the woman counting her blessings, grateful that she's alive--or, after the heartbreaking events in Boston--grateful that she has two legs upon which to walk has the wealth of a beautiful world, whether or not her face meets some societal standard.

I wonder how the sketches would have turned out had the women been told what was happening. "We're going to draw a sketch based on your description of yourself, which you'll compare with one based on a new acquaintance's description." The women were sketched by a police artist, after all, someone whose work is usually a composite of witnesses' recollections with the caption, "wanted for bank robbery."
"Maria" drawn from self and stranger descriptions in the Dove ad

Are women often too hard on themselves? Do they frequently fret needlessly over details of their looks? Of course. Do they need to hear that their outward appearances are perceived by somebody they barely know as better than they verbalize? Don't think so.

Now isn't the time to foster narcissism. We've got Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and a whole app store of means to shout out how important we are. The Dove campaign platform is, after all, a website called YOU Tube. You. Or, just as often, "I." Are the iPhone, iPad, iTunes named for generosity and thinking of others? Um, no.

How about a campaign showing some selfless women? Women who care for an aging relative, or a spouse with dementia? Women who work ceaselessly at their kids' schools, or mentor a younger colleague professionally? How about some exemplary women who are obese, truly unconventional-looking, or have scarred skin? Why not apply the same tag line: "You're more beautiful than you think"--because then we could define beauty beyond skincare. Oh yeah, but it wouldn't sell nearly as much soap.


  1. I wonder if people who don't think very highly of their looks don't think highly of themselves in other areas? I have no idea, just throwing the idea out there that focusing on the beauty aspect of a person's self-image is really only a small piece reflecting how a person sees his or her entire self? I do think lots of people out there need a confidence boost - not necessarily (only) about their looks, but about their talents and potential. Do you think that people who feel badly about their looks also feel badly about other aspects of themselves? Or do you think that is not necessarily always (or often) the case?

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