Tinted Lens: Musings on culture and beyond

The Beauty Myth: Dove Cosmetics Rides The Wave – Part I

Posted in Adaptation, Feminism, Intercultural Advertising, Intercultural Marketing, Semiotics by interculturaljournal on February 28, 2011

Updated: Feb 28, 2011 
Published: Oct 21, 2008

     In 1992, Naomi Wolf published “The Beauty Myth” which heralded what become known as the “third wave of feminism.” Wolf and others contend that women are in danger of being extinguished, figuratively speaking, if the endless onslaught of advertising messages that seek to objectify, sexualize, even degrade them, are not opposed. They see damage being inflicted upon the psyche of young girls and women who are developing an obsessive preoccupation with their bodies, at the cost of personal development. As the beauty myth weaves its webs of illusion around girls as young as five, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate myth from reality, but perhaps the most treacherous myth of all, is that they are powerless.

     Wolf’s book didn’t just catapult her to the international scene; it unleashed a tidal wave, the effects of which are just being seen today. Riding this tidal wave is Dove Cosmetics, with a very intelligent marketing campaign. In 2004, Dove established the “Self-esteem Fund” as well as its “Campaign for Beauty” in an apparent bid to debunk the unrealistic Beauty Myth. Dove’s unconventional ads featured average, cheerful women who seemed refreshingly comfortable in their own skin. More recently, their “Pro-age” commercials featured women in their fifties and sixties with exposed, unretouched, wrinkled skin. The tagline read: “this is not an anti-aging commercial, it’s a pro-age one.”

     Dove’s ad agency Ogilvy & Mather’s marketing director Philippe Harousseau explained, “some people are surprised, even shocked… We decided to bring this campaign to life because the survey told us women were ready for it” (MS. Magazine, 2005). To complement this new campaign, Dove established the “self-esteem fund,” because “too many girls develop low self-esteem from hang-ups about looks and, consequently, fail to reach their full potential in later life.” The fund is therefore “an agent of change to educate and inspire girls on a wider definition of beauty” (Dove Cosmetics, 2006).

Dove commercial

Snapshot of Dove commercial

One of the Fund’s most notable commercials was aired during the Super Bowl in 2006. This multiethnic ad featured unhappy looking young girls gazing directly at the viewer. Punctuating the ad was Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors. Messages that explained the girls’ countenance read, “wishes she were blonde,” “hates her freckles,” “afraid she’s fat,” and “thinks she’s ugly.” While this ad was not nearly as provocative as others by Dove, it was more disconcerting. Its mood was reminiscent of a UNICEF or Oxfam commercial that knew just how to tug at the viewers’ heartstrings. We see these little girls and are reminded of our own childhoods, our children or nieces. The message implies that these girls need a positive role model, they need to be told that they are beautiful, just as they are, and because of who they are. That the damage other media and society at large are inflicting, must be countered – as the commercial states: “let’s change their minds.”

     Just as it exposes a dilemma, the ad offers a solution. The song’s lyrics explain that Dove is there to see to it that these girls are well taken care of. The effect of the words is further enhanced by the voices of little girls who sing reassuringly “when this world drives you crazy and you’ve taken all you can take, you call me up, because you know I’ll be there.” They go on to sing “…because I see your true colors shining through… and that’s why I love you, so don’t be afraid, to let it show, your true colors, are beautiful like a rainbow.” As the song progresses, the heavy mood is lifted and every girl is enlivened and begins to smile.

     Such an ad might appear to be misplaced in the Super Bowl lineup of commercials. However, a more careful analysis reveals that Dove knew exactly how to reach its target audience. According to ESPN, 44% of Super Bowl viewers are female – that’s an estimated 89 million female viewers (Nelson, 2007). Additionally, a survey conducted following the Super Bowl by comScore Networks, revealed the ad was a success among female and males audiences. When asked whether the ad improved or damaged their impression of the brand in any way, 56% of women said it improved it, whereas only 1% said it damaged their impression. Men were more sceptical: 33% said the ad improved their impression of Dove and 7% said it damaged it (comScore Networks, 2006). Dove did not stop there. In the advent of globalization, and to maximize its reach in other markets, it adapted the commercial for audiences in Canada, China, Singapore, the Netherlands, and other countries.

     Unlike its American counterpart, the Canadian version featured the voice of twenty-five year old Canadian singer Layah Jane, and although the images were almost identical, this version had a slightly different undertone. For instance, the girls’ ethnicities were more varied, so were their ages. Additionally, of all the editions, this was the only one to end with the sentence, “let’s make peace with beauty.”

Dove Self-Esteem Fund commercial (Singapore version)

Dove Self-Esteem Fund commercial (Singapore version)

The Chinese and Singaporean editions closely resembled each other, but differed considerably from the North American editions. Here, the girls were mostly above-average looking. None of them had visibly crooked or missing teeth typical of children their age, as seen in the “Western” editions. Also, one particularly pretty girl with rather round eyes and curly hair commanded much of the spotlight. Her face was displayed longer than any other girl and was the closing scene. Her caption read “hates her curly hair.” Other captions read “wishes she had double eyelids.” Upon closer analysis, we see that the desired response was artfully crafted through the use of key images, colors, and sounds that are known to elicit a set outcome within a given culture. This is accomplished through the use of semiotics.

     Semiotics is the study of signs, be they written or spoken words, images, sounds, colors—anything our senses perceive—and how we attach meanings to them. Pierce makes the distinction between 3 types of signs: an icon, index and symbol. Iconic signs physically resemble their referent, and indexical signs possess a logical connection to their referent, whereas symbolic signs are arbitrarily chosen. Therefore, in the Dove commercial, the image of any given child is an icon of a female child. Her sullen facial expression is an index of her sadness. Her frozen body language is also an index of lethargy. The words “hate” and “ugly” are an index of self-loathing. The children together as a group are an index of a large-scale epidemic. These signs together create the symbol for repression, and since they are associated repeatedly with the word “beauty”, that is what the later starts to signify. On the other hand, the word “Dove” is an index for a white bird, which is often a symbol for peace and liberation. In this context, it is a symbol for the antidote. However, none of these are the final signified, since endless layers of meaning exist that are both uniquely individual and highly variable.

     Peirce described the mental process of moving these meanings and associations as a cascading one. As Ryder (2004) explains, “To him [Peirce], the relationship of the sign to the object is made in the mind of the interpreter as a mental tool which he called the interpretant.” Peirce viewed the process of semiosis (sign interpretation) as an iterative one. When a signifier elicits an interpretant, it doesn’t produce the final signified, but a mediating thought which takes us a step closer to understanding. Ryder adds: “The interpretant itself becomes a sign that can elicit yet another interpretant, leading the way toward an infinite series of unlimited semioses.” Therefore, the final signified is itself a sign that has infinite possibilities. Add to that the objective nature of the process of semiosis, and the many challenges facing semioticians come into focus. This highlights the inherent difficulties in attempting to decipher how others interpret a sign. However, within a culture, certain meanings become ascribed to signs as standards, to simplify and unify the understanding of “reality.”

     Looking at the Canadian edition of the commercial with this in mind, the sentence “let’s make peace with beauty” takes on a whole new meaning. For decades, Canadians have both been known as, and have identified themselves as, “peace-keepers.” Therefore, the word “peace” is closely woven within the fabric of Canadian identity.

Dove commercial -Canadian edition - "let's make peace with beauty"

Dove commercial - Canadian edition

Yet, the commercial says more within this context. It implies that Dove is not waging a battle of liberation on our behalf, but advocating a peaceful resolution. Furthermore, since “Dove” is a symbol for peace, it is by association a symbol for Canada. Canadians are thus meant to identify Dove as a national symbol, not an American or foreign imposition. Rather than using Canadian symbols to illicit a certain response, Dove is also creating a new association for established symbols. This is what Rance Crain of Advertising Age referred to when he said, “great advertising plays the tune rather than just dancing to the tune” (Crain, 1999).

     Undoubtedly, Dove’s short-term objectives are to capitalize on consumers’ social consciousness. They are also extending a pseudo-friendship to women everywhere who are more likely to purchase products from someone they like and feel a connection with. However the element of trust has a second benefit: it persuades women to allow Dove entry into the playground. The latter is likely the most insidious aspect of the campaign and where the long-term objective lays. For decades, advertisers have seen value in creating brand loyalty at an early age. According to Mike Searles, president of Kids ‘R’ Us, “If you own this child at an early age, you own this child for years to come. Companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger’” (Harris, 1989). It is not surprising then that Dove actively seeks to partner with organizations like Girl Scouts of the USA to extend and maintain its reach… continued in Part II.

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