Of Feminism, Capitalism, and Soap: Social Justice on the Market

As companies become increasingly aware of the social justice movement making way on Twitter and Tumblr, they are incorporating feminist slogans and messages into their products in order to capitalize off of young empowered girls.

Dove’s commercial “Evolution”.

“No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”

The commercial’s chilling closing line sparked our discussion of beauty in my cramped junior high classroom. We looked around at each other, some of us just beginning to dabble in makeup, and gravely conversed about how we’ve all been influenced by the unrealistic standards media has set for us. Then I found myself in the same situation again. In my high school French class I heard murmurs of recognition when the familiar YouTube video was played on the projector. It had become just what it had wanted to be: the perfect educational tool.

The skin and hair care tycoon Dove has been hinging their ad campaign on feminism ever since their 2006 commercial “Evolution” took the internet by storm, reaching an impressive 19 million views on YouTube. Following Evolution’s success, they have since launched several eye-opening social experiments in an attempt to make women confront and embrace their insecurities. “Real Beauty Sketches” compared womens’ perceptions of themselves with the perceptions of others, showing how we have a tendency to focus on our imperfections. 2014’s “Dove Selfie” had similar participants display “honest” pictures of themselves in a public gallery and filmed them brought to tears by the Post-It Note compliments they received from strangers walking through. And at the end of each commercial, albeit just for a second, the familiar golden bird that is Dove’s logo flashed. A brief reminder of what we owe to Dove for empowering young girls next time we visit the toiletries aisle.

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign might be one of the most prominent forms of feminism making its way on the market, but it is certainly not alone. Take “Girls Can”, for example — Covergirl’s highly marketed advertisement featuring idols like P!nk and Ellen DeGeneres telling young girls that yes, they can be athletes, be funny, and challenge double standards as long as they’re easy, breezy, and beautiful with a full face of Covergirl makeup. The slogan “Mermaids Against Misogyny” became an internet phenomenon and eventually made its way onto the busts of t-shirts on feministapparel.com (hyperlink). The growing social justice movement on social media, especially websites like Tumblr, which is known for their incessant product placement, has only served to contribute to the interest in feminism as a selling point for businesses.

It feels as if companies have finally caught on that women make up a good half of our population and an even higher percentage of our market. And now they’re using our growing thirst for justice to lure us into buying their products.

A little research, and it becomes laughably transparent how unauthentic Dove’s campaign really is. Despite Dove parading around its use of “real, unconventionally beautiful models”, Unilever, the owner of the Dove brand, continued to use scarily thin women and sexist tropes in Axe and Slimfast commercials to appeal to their predominantly male audience (Forbes). And in 2008, the former employee Paul Dangin claimed to have “extensively retouched” photos used in the Real Beauty campaign, which provoked controversy despite the fact that Dove executives were quick to deny his claims (AdAge, 2008).

Axe’s overly-sexualized beach babes are a stark contrast to Dove’s Real Beauty under the same company.

But as long as the message gets across, it’s a harmless lie, isn’t it? Say we ignored these issues and put our full trust into Dove. Can their core arguments about redefining beauty and finding your inner confidence hold up? Actually, they might be more harmful than helpful. In many of the company’s commercials, an abnormal amount of focus is put into body image and appearance. Beauty is an important aspect of loving yourself, yes, but status and ability are important factors that Dove pushes to the sidelines. The women that are televised to millions of people are sold as pitiful, self-loathing “real” women who worry about their appearance twenty-four hours a day, and with a little magic push from the advertiser, make a complete 180 and start to accept their inner beauty. We’re equating being beautiful with being confident (Time). If you’re comfortable with your body but have trouble coming to terms with your intelligence (hint: that’s me!), you cannot see yourself at all in these advertisements.

Commercialized feminism also gives a false sense of fulfillment. By the end of each Dove commercial, we smile, satisfied that the woman behind the screen came to terms with herself, and move on with our lives. We expect the handful of female self-care narratives featured in these advertisements to be introduced, resolved, and forgotten while the real problem continues to loom over us in the form of institutionalized sexism, the suffocating presence of the gender binary, and story after story of sexual harassment. By the end of a commercial focusing on social change, we should feel motivated to get up, to contribute, to see instances of injustice in our own communities and fight to fix them. We cannot even begin to pretend that Dove is the solution to all instances of misogyny, but to those who aren’t directly affected by the very real and very common social problems in our society, it’s the easiest way out of a problem that we’d prefer not to deal with in the first place.

This ignorance can make it extremely difficult for women to gain access to resources and support. People shoot down 2016’s feminism as the exaggeration of “women on their period”. The feigned heroism of Dove and similar companies encourages the mindset of those that think that sexism was ended when women gained the right to vote. There is a common misconception that one famous victory means the end to all similar cases of oppression nationwide. And that kind of thinking is dangerous.

Not all of marketed feminism is toxic, however — the fight against Photoshopped beauty is a real one. Across almost all forms of feminist advertising, the unanimous idea that media creates an unrealistic standard for women through digital manipulation reveals itself. I won’t begin to question that for some women, these advertisements can work, or even help them achieve a new and healthy level of self-acceptance. But we must be aware of the core reason why these advertisements exist: to make money.

Steadily increasing sales over the 10-year course of the Campaign for Real Beauty.

So… have they? For the most part, the answer is yes. Dove’s sales climbed from $2.5 billion at launch to $4 billion ten years later (AdAge, 2014). Not to mention that the company inspired others to follow the same path, using the same tactics to result in similar successes (Takepart). In a way, that’s a good sign — it shows that millions of women are interested in feminism and are aware of the problems of self-image, and want to buy into a good cause for it. But at the same time, this manipulation on a mass scale is somewhat alarming, especially considering what kind of messages the companies have the power to be selling. To market such a serious issue, large businesses have to be careful to make sure they’re being realistic and progressive.

In order to make a real change, we have to step down from using feminism as a cheap gateway to make a profit. We have to avoid being the faux savior leading the movement and instead join the movement itself. Put women in positions of power. Advocate for equal rights in the workplace. Ask yourself if your commercial is about women as consumers or women as people. And if you’re a consumer, love yourself in every way possible, not just the way the media tells you to.

Works Cited

Alter, Charlotte. “Hey Dove, Don’t ‘Redefine’ Beauty, Just Stop Talking About It.” Time. Time, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Bahadur, Nina. “Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign Turns 10: How A Brand Tried To Change The Conversation About Female Beauty.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Forbes Leadership Forum. “Beware the Hidden Traps in Cause Marketing.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Melissa Rayworth. “10 Years After Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign, More Brands Fight for Real Women.” TakePart. Participant Media, 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Neff, Jack. “Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Pics Could Be Big Phonies.” Advertising Age. Advertising Age News RSS, 07 May 2008. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Neff, Jack. “Ten Years In, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ Seems to Be Aging Well.” Advertising Age. Advertising Age News RSS, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Panchodorto. “Axe Commercial Beach (Shower Gel).” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Mar. 2013. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

Tpiper. “Dove Evolution.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Oct. 2006. Web. 21 Nov. 2016.

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