Tinted Lens: Musings on culture and beyond

Mehta’s “Water” as analogy of cultural un-conditiong

Posted in Feminism, Semiotics, Uncategorized by interculturaljournal on March 1, 2011

Who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
William Blake

A few years ago, while watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), I found his depiction of women quite remarkable; they were more like one-dimensional dolls with a lot of makeup on. In fact, they somehow managed to wake up looking that way! In this instance, Lynch only presented women naturally (i.e. not made up) when they were supposed to be unwell. Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) is a stark contrast to Lynch’s film. Her characters are complex with multifaceted personalities.

The film offers a view of India 70 years ago. According to ancient tradition, a Hindu widow had one of three choices: to join her husband on his funeral pyre (i.e. to be burned); to marry his younger brother, if available; or retire to an ashram (refuge). There, she would live a life of self-denial and relative isolation.

The movie opens with Chuyia, a child bride who finds herself widowed at the age of eight. She is then forced into as ashram in Varanasi — one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. Her entrance provides a different “gaze” altogether, that of an innocent child.

Chuyia is a spirited little girl. She quickly creates reverberations in the otherwise still waters of her new home. One of the women she meets, Kalyani (played by Lisa Ray), is the “Ashram’s jewel.” We discover soon after that she had been resorting to prostitution to alleviate the crushing poverty for the inhabitants of the ashram.

Mehta weaves Kalyani’s character into a complex tapestry of beauty. However, Narayan, the young man she meets and falls in love with (thanks to Chuyia), does not initially appreciate this.

Narayan is an unconventional man. Although of a high cast, he is willing to break with tradition and oppose his family to marry a widow. However, things take a different turn when Kalyani’s life as a prostitute is uncovered, along the association between her and Narayan’s father. Narayan is crushed.

The movie then culminates in a scene where, hopeless and shamed, Kalyani drowns herself in a final act of purification.

Water is a major component of the movie with numerous scenes by the holy river Ganges throughout, and it is easily interpreted as representing tradition.

Tradition is key in shaping our perception of both our inner and outer worlds. What comes into the foreground vs the background, and how we interpret what we see is mediated in large part by this cultural conditioning. Over time, concepts of right, wrong, pureness, or ugliness become so common sensical, they are seldom challenged.

However, I think of Water here has the opposite of tradition. Water shape-shifts, from solid to liquid to vapour, and in so doing re-purifies itself. Similarly, water refreshes the faculties of perception allowing them to be less laden with imprinting.   It can therefore be an analogy for the ongoing process of un-learning/re-learning, which requires an open mind and a persistent willingness to shift perspectives, while keeping one’s feet grounded (i.e. not “throwing the baby out with the bath water”).

Going back to the film, it is noteworthy that Kalyani manages to maintain her inner calm and sense of well-being, even as she prostitutes. Perhaps this is because she does not perceive or accept to define herself as society would.

Where she loses her balance is when she adopts an external projection of who she is, as her beloved supposedly sees her. By doing so, she relinquishes her self, and is subsequently washed away.



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.


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

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

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

… continued from Part I

     The meticulously articulated marketing strategy described in the first part of this article is in no way unique to Dove. Jean Kilbourne explains that advertisers’ unifying message is this: a problem or need exists for which their product is the solution. By purchasing their product, we are brought closer to resolving our issues, be they physical, financial, political, or emotional. Kilbourne also believes the myth advertisers enforce is that their products ultimately empower us, whereas the opposite is true. She writes, “the story that advertising tells us is that the way to be happy, to find satisfaction—and the path to political freedom, as well—is through the consumption of material objects. And the major motivating force for social change throughout the world today is this belief that happiness comes from the market” (Kilbourne, 1999, p.75). Certainly, not all myths are dangerous or destructive. Yet, within capitalist societies, the ruling myth that individuals’ pursuit of happiness can be met, or at least aided, by consuming goods is both irresponsible and disparaging.

     Psychologist, Carl Rogers who ascribed to the phenomenological tradition believed that three main conditions were necessary for individuals to develop and thrive: congruence, unconditional positive regard, and empathic understanding (Griffin, 2003, p.32). While Rogers developed his findings within the therapeutic setting, he believed it remained valid in any interpersonal exchange. Advertisers rely heavily on phenomenology when crafting their marketing messages. This is precisely why they conduct market research. By pinpointing our insecurities, our deepest fears and desires, they are able to fabricate the very myths we would want to believe. As in the case of Dove, good advertisements successfully exude a genuine, caring, real, empathic, and warm personae that represents the company, and by extension, its products. When these myths become a part of our reality (whether intentionally or not) we co-author them, weaving in our own subjective experiences. What follows is a ritual participation that sees us purchasing select products and utilizing them to extend the experience of the chosen myth for as long as possible.

     Myths are considered by many a powerful and creative means of negotiating our reality. They appear healthy in as far as they are demarcated as such: myths we choose to engage in to enrich and enliven our lives. What is alarming is when our perception of reality is so distorted by the images that engulf us everyday that the line which separates reality and myth becomes jagged. This is precisely what Wolf referred to as the Beauty Myth. Over time, the jagged line of this particularly profitable myth was further manipulated until it zigzagged its way between two entirely conflicting realities: one in which poreless, statuesque she-figures are the norm, and the other reality our mirrors reflect. Different media have contributed to solidifying this split personality within society. Magazines, television, billboards, and cinema all present conflicting images and messages of what beauty represents. Is it any wonder that bulimia, anorexia, and premature osteoporosis are on the increase?

     Wolf and others believe the Beauty Myth to be a form of patriarchal hegemony. Within this system, the symbol “beauty” is repeatedly associated with the word “female” until this becomes a standard. Since beauty is presented as fragile, ephemeral, and sensual so do these depictions become imposed onto women. Systematically, the very matrix that forms a woman’s identity is unraveled, splintered, and re-molded into a mere icon of her multifaceted potential. However, while the claims of patriarchal involvement are valid, the assumption that men do not suffer the same systematic manipulation is unlikely to hold true. Furthermore, it is regrettable that women are often labeled as “victims” of a predominant system, or the media. This is usually done by well-meaning feminist auteurs, who believe they are breaking the walls of repression. I hold that the opposite is true; such a label is stigmatizing and disempowering in itself.

     One must also recall that hegemony does not imply forceful domination, but the ability to convince the masses of the inherent usefulness of a given discourse. As Real (1996) suggests, “we also choose fictional worlds because they do not resemble our real world but offer a variation from it, a new and different experience” (p. 126). Indeed, these experiences can be novel and entertaining. However, while weighing the benefits, we need to remain aware of the effects. We can be more discriminating by insisting on mainstreaming myths which empower and inspire, while challenging ones which do the opposite. Endeavors such as Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, could help in their mainstreaming effect— but their symbiotic nature needs to remain in check. Ultimately, the biggest myth of all is that we do not have a choice. In the advent of social media, more than ever, advertisers dance to the tunes we compose. Let us compose wisely.



comScore Networks. (2006) Paying Millions for ‘Brand Damage’? Retrieved on April 1st, 2007 from: http://www.comscore.com/press/release.asp?press=740

Crain, R. (1999, January 18) When ads don’t produce sales, watch the (phony) excuses fly. Advertising Age, (23).

Dove Cosmetics. (2006). Campaign for Real Beauty. http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.com/dsef/temp2.asp?id=4199

Griffin, E. A. (2003). A first look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill.

Harris, R. (1989, November 12). Children who dress for excess: today’s youngsters have become fixated with fashion. Los Angeles Times. A1.

Howard, T. (2006). Dove ad gets serious for Super Bowl. USA Today.

Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Free Press Publishing.

Ms. Magazine blog (2005). Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign Getting Under Your Skin? Retrieved on April 2nd, from: http://www.msmusings.net/archives/fashion/index.html

Nelson, A. (2007) Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund 2006 Super Bowl Ad: How Does This Ad Fit into the Super Bowl Lineup? Associated Press. Retrieved on March 23, 2007, from: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/138225/doves_selfesteem_fund_2006_super_bowl.html

Real, M. (1996). Exploring Media Culture. Sage Publishing.

Ryder, M. (2004). Semiotics: Language and Culture. Retrieved on March 15, 2007 from http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/semiotics_este.html

Wolf, N. (1992). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. Harper Perennial.

The following videos were also referenced:

Dove – True Colors (US)

Dove – True Colors (Canadian Version)

Dove – Campaign for Real Beauty (Chinese Version)