Curvy Women in Their Underwear: Social Progress or Advertising Trick?
Dove’s new advertising campaign has garnered a lot of attention for using models who, well, look like real women. If the goal was press coverage, they got it. Just in the last few days, stories have appeared in New York Daily News, Slate, San Francisco Chronicle and many others.
The opinions have ranged from “this is a great step forward for women” to “Dove is taking a risk using normal women.” But I think the bigger (or at least more interesting) question is: can advertising ever be socially progressive as Dove is intentionally positioning this campaign? After all, the campaign comes with its own website and message boards and touchy-feely talking points delivered in interviews—all promoting this as something much more than advertising.
All of this reminds me of the long-running Virginia Slims ads that proclaimed ”You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” in a move designed to play off the feminist movement. There is just something a little off about promoting women’s liberation while trying to make them slaves to an addictive drug. And there’s also something off about Dove promoting positive body image while telling women they need a beauty product.
I have both studied advertising from an academic sense and worked in the industry for many years. And here’s the thing about advertising: no matter how complicated it seems, or artistic or entertaining or socially progressive, the message is always the same: buy our product. That’s it. That’s always, always the primary message. Any other message is secondary and, in fact, chosen to augment the primary message.
Now, we can discuss effect outside of intent, but I seriously question whether the folks at Dove had some kind of social progress in mind when they decided to use curvy, plucked-from-the-populace women to represent the company. Yes, it might have made them feel better to think they were doing something to promote positive body image, but at the end of the day, this was entirely calculated to move product.
Dove knew that plastering the country with pictures of curvy women in their underwear would garner a lot of attention for the brand. It’s a stunt positioned to look socially conscious. It’s a trick to get women to buy Dove because they think Dove cares. Dove has correctly identified the fact that most women aren’t supermodels and has made the rather creative decision to target normal women in a faux call of solidarity.
That’s the little truth when you see when you pull back the curtain. No matter how it appears. it’s all predicated on improving sales.
So, no, I don’t think advertising can be socially progressive, or art or anything outside of commerce. It might have a secondary message or effect, but that doesn’t change the fact that the creators’ main aim was to sell a product. By its very nature it’s coercive. And dang it if it doesn’t work.