Wednesday, August 03, 2005

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.


At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Danny said...

Thank you for helping me understand why seeing these billboards plastered all over Los Angeles has filled me with cynicism rather than an undying respect for the corporation (Unilever) that makes Dove soap. You make some excellent points and this is obviously a very calculated move (but why should we expect anything different from an advertising campaign?). The analogy to the "You've Come a Long Way, Baby!" campaign is right on although the Virginia Slims advertising was truly heinous. I'm guessing that the cigarette slogan was devised by male advertising executives who had had nothing but contempt for the women's movement.

While cynical, I'm still glad for my 10-year-old daughter to see images all over town of women who look more real than the typical emaciated supermodel (even though the curvy gals of the Dove campaign are still way skinnier than the average American).

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

While cynical, I'm still glad for my 10-year-old daughter to see images all over town of women who look more real than the typical emaciated supermodel.

Which is how these concept campaigns work. The secondary message can be its own message (possitive or negative) and although it is not at all separate from the primary selling message, it can still have an effect separate from the sell.

But advertising is always in response to culture and doesn't drive it. Therefore the effect of a secondary message is fleeting at best and coercive at worst. There's certainly no harm in applauding the use of normal looking models, but nor is it a cause for celebration as Dove seems to want it to be,

As for Virginia Slims, you're right about it being heinous. Even for cigarette advertising's incredibly low standards.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

I remember an ad campaign by Ikea a few years back, where they had a gay couple talking about what furniture they were going to pick out, or some such thing. My first reaction was, "Hey, cool!" My second, more cynical, take, was, "Wait, they're just trying to sell more couches ... to gays and to me." The opinion I settled on was, "Well, they're gonna advertise no matter what, so I'm glad they're at least including everyone. Also, this will really piss off the religious right, and this is a good thing."

I guess I'm just agreeing with your final point that advertising exists to sell something, regardless of its secondary effect. And with that in mind, I would celebrate the secondary effect, whether it be inclusion of gays or acceptance of the average female form.

Finally (someone had to say it), I really prefer looking at curvy women in their underwear over the emaciated sourpusses you see in most ads.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I really prefer looking at curvy women in their underwear over the emaciated sourpusses you see in most ads.

Yep. As I've said for years, it's really not men who promote the starved-to-death look. That, I think, is a woman-on-woman crime. Us men are generally biologically programmed to like women who have their god-given curves intact.

At 10:48 AM, Anonymous Heiuan said... one of those "curvy" women who was built for comfort and not for speed, just let me state that when I first read this post, I originally thought it was about the Dove Chocolate Company...hee hee!!

Show's where MY priorities are. I could care less about personal grooming products but I'm SERIOUS about my chocolate.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although i think the Dove campaign is great for the average womans self esteem it seems to be riding the wave of the 'real women' images that people everywhere are raving on about.

What really annoys me is that im petite and not that curvatious and it hurts to have my favourite magazine tell me im not a 'real woman' if i havnt got curves; giving statistics to tell me that men dont want my 'skinny' body shape that i can do nothing about. Has anyone though about the girls that arnt curvy but still hate their body- possibly because of that- how is that promoting a healthy body image.

all i see is women saying that their body is better and that isnt a healthy attitude in my books.


At 4:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the world's largest buyer of seafood, Unilever did initiate
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1997 with WWF in a unique green-business partnership, see It's a global, non-profit organisation that seeks to harness consumer purchasing power to generate change and promote environmentally responsible stewardship of seafood.

The MSC has developed an environmental standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. It uses a product label to reward environmentally responsible fishery management and practices.

The MSC standard for seafood is finally gathering momentum and there is growing international interest in sustainable seafood.

So Unlilever does have a social conscience! And there is no need for cynicism about everything in the world - hurray!


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