Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign

Dove has a new video out called “Choose Beautiful.”

Girl at Mirror by Norman Rockwell

Although this video is already widely circulated as the other videos, it has not been without critcism. Awra Mahdawi, writing for The Guardian, highlights some of the common criticisms of Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, begun in 2004. Common criticism includes the convenience of statistics in a study commissioned by Dove, in authenticity of the films, or distrust over a for-profit company claiming to want to help women.

Against Dove’s funding of the Study

All statistics cited in the media should be taken with a grain of salt. The reliability and validity of a study should be examined. A study may be  misrepresented, oversimplified, or presented with cause-and-effect relationship where only correlation exist. StrategyOne (an applied research firm based in New York) managed the international study commissioned by Dove, in collaboration with Dr. Nancy Etcoff of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, with consultation of Dr.Susie Orbach of the London School of Economics. It is called The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report, and is available online.

External validity addresses how generalizable the study’s inferences are to the general population. Interviews were conducted of 3,200 women, aged 18 to 64, across ten countries: the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Italy, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and Japan. At face value, the report is up front in their methodology, has a large sample of a diverse group. If one wanted to question the study itself, they would have to dig deeper rather than making a broad claim as Mahdawi does.

Against a for-profit company doing good

This leads us to the distrust of the campaign because it is run by a for-profit company. Critics accuse the company of simply trying to sell more products. Sendhil Mullainathan, writing for the New York Times, describes the choice of a person or company seeking greater personal or greater social returns in their profession. Various professions provide different ratios of these returns. Professions typically views as providing greater personal returns than social returns, may be used for greater social benefit. He references George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life who takes a professional typically used for personal gain (finance) and turning it to something that contributes to the greater good.

So it is not impossible that Dove might seek greater social returns in their work, even though they are a for-profit company. A company may seek to enhance their image by associating themselves with positive images: all-natural, child-friendly, eco-friendly, American-made. Dove goes beyond mere association, though it likely does help profits increase. The company is actively investing in these projects whose popularity speak to their social benefit

Against the self-esteem movement

There are other arguments like those put forward in The Guardian that feel-good pieces like the latest Dove video do not an empowered woman make. Mahdawi takes issue with the focus on perception. The question “what is beauty?” is a philosophical question that can be and should be discussed and debated. Dove believes the definition can be expanded to include more women, but women make a choice to apply or not to apply these powerful adjectives to themselves.

What is the power here of positive thinking? People often perceive women who are more confident, have better posture, speak more assertively, as more attractive. Feeling confident does make a woman more beautiful. Feeling confident can allow her to make choices or take opportunities she might not have otherwise taken. It feeds into optimism. All of these things are recipes for a good life. They are ingredients and not panaceas. As ingredients, they are an important contribution to the whole.

That is why the self-esteem movement in these Dove videos, seeking to awaken women’s senses to a habitual tendency to judge, to downplay, to disregard their own appearance, matters.

Are these videos real or staged?

Lastly we come to something I have considered after viewing Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches and its subsequent criticisms. Are the women, who appear to be reacting spontaneously, actresses? Each video would need to be addressed separately. But I wonder, would the message be less powerful if the films were constructed in such a way to represent the data in the global report? Does it really diminish the insight?

Whether staged or not, if they did not have insight they would not be passed around as they are. They would not go viral. Some women see these videos and think, “oh my, that is what I think of myself.” They are not for every woman. They will not speak to every woman’s needs. But for what they are, for who they are meant for, I think they are a valuable resource and tool for accepting ourselves just a little bit more.