Dove, Nike and the perils of positive advertising

Earlier this week, a video produced by Dove was making the internet rounds and sparking all kinds of debate in its wake. In it, a sketch artist drew two versions of the same woman – one as described by herself and one as described by her friend. The resulting disparities between the two sketches were meant to show how skewed the woman’s perspective of her appearance is, and that she is more beautiful than she thinks herself to be.  If you are one of the five people on the internet who has not seen the video yet, you can watch it below.

Response to the video quickly fell into two camps: one that found its message inspiring and uplifting, and one that found its message troubling.  (I am not going to rehash the criticisms here. Instead I will point you here and here and here.)

Now, I have a confession to make.  I did not care at all about this ad.  I only watched it after people began criticizing it, and even then it was just to understand what was going on.  Perhaps this is a function of what Autumn at the Beheld has termed “beauty privilege,” in that I adhere closely enough to our culture’s beauty standards – tall, white, thin, blonde, able-bodied, etc. etc. – but I don’t really feel a lot of anxiety over my beauty or lack thereof.  (I know, a woman who likes her face and admits so in public, on the internet even, SOMEBODY STONE ME, QUICKLY.)  I suspect this is why I didn’t really feel the need to watch a video that was all about how I am more beautiful than I know, and why even after watching it, it didn’t really do that much for me.

But that doesn’t mean that I am some kind of superheroic media critic who can fly faster than a viral internet advertising campaign and deconstruct the semiotics of a print ad in a single bound.  It just means that the Dove campaign didn’t hit me in my emotional sweet spot.  On the contrary, if we had been talking about Nike’s online campaign aimed at female athletes, I would have had a totally different reaction.  Take, for instance, their series of videos showing female Olympians training in a CrossFitt-esque setting while the Noisettes’ “Don’t Give Up” plays in the background.  Check it out:

I eat that shit up with a spoon so big the Statue of Liberty could use it.

And what about this print ad campaign from 2006?

I know that I’m not the only woman who loved this series of ads. The ads took attributes that we as women are used to hearing need to be changed – big butts, thunder thighs, “manly” shoulders – and instead, it celebrates them.

So I get why the Dove ad campaign was celebrated by so many women.  To be exposed to advertising is to be forced to weather an onslaught of fear and anxiety and messages about how we all but flat-out suck and the only thing that will save us from sucking so hard is buying these shoes and that cream and this diet food and so on and so forth.  As  result, when any advertiser presents us with a message that deviates from that – and not only that, but actually goes a little further and praises us – well, it’s not hard to understand why so many of us have positively rosy feelings towards these corporations.

Let us not forget that these are still corporations, though, and what they are aiming to do is sell us on their products by associating something more ineffable with them: an image, a sensibility, self-esteem, physical empowerment.  The idea is that if that association between the ineffable and the concrete product becomes strong enough, we will become loyal customers.  We may not want to financially support companies that can barely disguise their loathing for us, but we will buy beauty products from the company that thinks we are beautiful just as we are (which, surely I am not the only one to note the contradiction in terms here?) and we will buy shoes and t-shirts from the company that wants us to feel like we can kick the world’s ass with one hand tied behind our backs (even as a Nike-contracted factory in Indonesia literally kicks its workers’ asses.)

That we might come away from consuming these marketing campaigns with feelings of inspiration and excitement is secondary to their ultimate purpose, which is to get us to buy things.

The reality is that the things these advertising campaigns want us to experience – physical power, self-esteem, accomplishment, self-love, a sense of self-worth – these are things that cannot be purchased.  It does not matter if you have more money than George Soros and the Koch brothers combined.  The emotional states these advertising campaigns are trying to arouse in us cannot be bought, not if we want them to count.

And that is the real problem with positive advertising, the reason why part of me will always cut major side-eye to even the most inspirational marketing campaign.  At its core, all advertisers want us to do is buy into their mythology and their self-generated images, which they hope will in turn become profits to add to their bottom line.  They enlist brilliant creative minds and psychologists and research teams, all with the goal of making the dollars flow from your bank account into theirs.

Now, does this mean I think that we should never buy anything?  Nope.  Does this mean I think we should never allow ourselves to feel anything when we watch advertising?  No way.  (Seriously, I defy anyone to watch this legendary VW Cabrio commercial and not feel the goosebumps raise all over your body.)  Just as some advertising can be utterly revolting in its gross offensiveness, other advertising can be funny or beautiful or even touching, and it’s okay to feel that way about it.  But just because an ad is able to make us feel good and beautiful, it doesn’t mean we should allow it to overcome our ability to think critically about it.

25 responses to “Dove, Nike and the perils of positive advertising

  1. I added this blog to my feed last week, then promptly forgot I did so. (Sorry.) After reading this, I’m very glad I added it. Great work. I’ve always thought the Dove campaign was BS and while I loved Thunder Thighs as well, I could never forget that Nike’s ultimate motive was to get my money. As someone who tries to use a critical mind when buying stuff, but still buys stuff, I really appreciated this exploration of woman-focused advertising and consumerism.

    • LOL don’t even apologize. I have been spotty with my posting for the past couple of months due to some personal stuff going on. I’m glad you found your way here, and thanks for your comment. 🙂

  2. Hi there, I love love you blog! I am currently working on a critical analysis of the Nike Campaign for Real Women (2006), and can’t help but think that even though it seems Nike is empowering “us” by telling us “hey, your big butt and thunder thighs are awesome!”, if you look deeper at the messages in those ads, it perpetuates a patriarchal, normative, oversexualized, washed out message that we are all used to hearing: “This is what you should look like.” Those women do not have big butts, thunder thighs, manly shoulders (whatever that means), and so on. PLUS, look at the images, they are edited. I wish they would put a regular looking person in an advertisement.. you know, someone who’s legs rub together during a marathon (or when they walk on the treadmill), or someone who sometimes has to unbutton their jeans because they are too tight, and have them tell us “hey, I am beautiful, and so are you, no matter what.” And lastly, enough with the excercise-makes-you-pretty. Exercise is good for you, dammit 🙂 And I agree with your point of the post: these folks are money hungry corporations.

    • Excellent point. I think it speaks to just how low the bar has been set when it comes to advertising that so many of us look at advertising that makes even the tiniest nod to diversity of appearances and start falling over ourselves to praise it. There is a real deficiency of realistic portrayals of human bodies in advertising.

  3. Reblogged this on Dear Aradia and commented:
    This is a fantastic post from Caitlin over at Fit & Feminist about positive message advertising. This Dove campaign has been making the media rounds lately, and while it certainly presents a positive message (that people are consistently too hard on themselves, women especially, and how we are all beautiful), it needs to be thought through and discussed and dissected instead of spoon-fed to our egos. WHY does this ad work? WHY are we affected? And WHY are they really making this ad? Read her post and come to your own conclusion.

  4. The way I feel about advertising is this: Yes, I know they want my money, but women are so often cast in a degrading light in advertising that I welcome anything positive. My biggest beef is with the Cover Girl commercial with Ellen Degenres… her first words are “inner beauty is important, but not as important as outer beauty.” WTF??? I couldn’t believe she did that commercial.

  5. You know it’s funny that you mention the companies behind the ads because honestly I don’t even think about the products when I see some of those videos. I never really ever buy Dove products, but have always bought Nike stuff; however their ads didn’t make me any more likely to purchase.

    Maybe that makes me strange but I totally don’t connect the videos with the products.

    The Nike ads do make me want to go workout with my music on really loud though haha

  6. I agree with you on the commercials and have nothing to add; I’m just commenting because the same picture of Hope Solo is on the cover of my anatomy & physiology book and for some reason I feel compelled to share that information 🙂

  7. I feel much the way that you do about the Dove ad. It doesn’t speak to me. And I agree that commercials that appeal to the athlete in me are much more likely to touch me. But, I remind myself that if Hope Solo was not a beautiful woman in addition to being a great athlete, chances are Nike would have picked another spokesperson. And I remind the women who love the Dove commercial to remember that Dove is brought to you by the same people who make and advertise Axe. And we all know how women are portrayed in those ads.

    • Great point. There’s a reason why certain female athletes are laden with advertising contracts, while others – ones who are just as athletically accomplished – go without those contracts. I personally am waiting to see if Brittney Griner lands a bunch of contracts. She seems like a no-brainer to me, but then she’s not as conventionally attractive in her appearance as, say, Elena Delle Donne or Skylar Diggins, so who knows how marketers will respond to her.

  8. Thank you for writing this blog–you’ve created a bright, empowering spot and a lovely departure from so many of the other “healthy”-living blogs that I’ve managed to stumble across on the Internet.

    As a freshman composition instructor, I use ads similar to the ones you highlighted in your post to discuss visual rhetoric with my students, and you’ve given me another level of analysis to consider (and perhaps bring into my classroom). I’ve noticed more and more of my female students choosing to analyze advertising targeted to women (some have even chosen the Dove campaigns specifically), so that gives me hope that young women are more aware of the contradictions and problems with these messages than we may think.

    I also have to tell you that part of the reason I enjoy your blog so much is your writing. And I just started training for my first half marathon–just thought I should throw that in there, too!

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad to hear that your students are becoming more critical about the media they consume. I don’t think we necessarily have to deprive ourselves of all enjoyment related to media/advertising/consumerism, but I do think that critical awareness is our best defense against being unnecessarily manipulated. This is particularly true when you think about how media-saturated our culture is, and how it makes up a large part of our experienced reality, you know? Anyways, I’m glad you are working with your students on thiss.

      And also, that’s awesome about your first half-marathon! When will you be running it?

  9. Advertising all comes down to making more money for the companies. It would be the rare company who puts their customers and their health first. They invest alot of money on researching the psychological ploys on how to best set up their ads to get to people emotions and make them “feel” they “need” to have their product. Be wise in your purchasing decisions. Do you “really” need it or is there a better and cheaper alternative that will do just as good a job (if not better)?

    • Oh man, your comment made me think about all of the subtle ways in which stuff is marketed. Like, with running shoes, you not only have all of the jargon science-y type stuff going on, but you also have all of the relationships built behind the scenes with magazines like Runners World and the Competitor group, which in turn lends legitimacy to the products through their reviews, etc. It can be tough to build up defenses against all of that if you don’t even know it’s happening.

  10. I refer to advertising as psyops and bore my kids half to death nudging them to think critically about it. I tell them that if the ad isn’t just showing you something the product does that similar products don’t, then you are being manipulated and it should piss you off. Poor things. I’m generally a very mellow parent.

  11. As manipulative as these ads are, I still find them far more palatable than this Crossfit one I saw a few months ago while watching a replay of a Crossfit Games one random weekend:

    “Turning Sevens Into Tens.” Really?? REALLY???

    I mean, at least Nike and Dove are trying to sell empowerment rather than blatant sexualization. It’s not above criticism by any means (and frankly I found the Dove campaign to be somewhat wanting for many reasons), but at least they are trying to change the conversation from about looks to about what someone can do. And as problematic as Nike can be, they nailed it with their “Nobody But Me” campaign: And honestly, I don’t even like Nike that much–most of the stuff I have from them is FC Barcelona gear.

    • Ugh, that Crossfit ad. Yeah, they totally blew it with that one.

      Like I said in my post, it’s great that advertisers like Nike and Dove are trying a different tactic in their marketing campaigns, but I just would hate for us to lose sight of the fact that they are, in fact, marketing campaigns. They do get some props for ad campaigns that are not fear- and anxiety-based but at the same time, it really speaks poorly about the state of advertising today when treating the target audience with decency is considered this remarkable thing.

  12. So true: “Let us not forget that these are still corporations, though, and what they are aiming to do is sell us on their products.”

    Because after all, focusing on the fact that we define ourselves by whether we ARE beautiful or not really gets us nowhere at all. What about the rest of what a woman is about? If the ad ends by telling us physical beauty is sooooo important to all these things in life, then I guess it’s still just an ad for beauty products.

    Personally, I’d expect to notice more of my negative physical features than other people. I guess that is all good–it means other people generally see each other in a more positive light. But the whole point of the ad seems to be to tell us beauty is the most important thing about a woman.

  13. Arrrghh, I really disliked those Dove ads! They’re cast almost like a fairy tale – the handsome prince (sketch artist) comes along and gives them the gift of beauty. And I absolutely hate that they are teary-eyed and apparently helpless until someone ELSE gives them self esteem (based on their appearance).

    Sure there are some great commercials (I knew that was going to be the “Pink Moon” ad before I even clicked the link) and no reason we can’t enjoy the artistry. But like everyone else is commenting, we should never forget they are advertisements.

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  15. Just because a company puts effort in making money doesn’t make them evil. No matter the advertising I still need running shoes, and shorts. I still need shower soap, and lotion. Why not buy these things from companies that don’t make me feel terrible about the state of the world?

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