Periodically, there’s a new round of people going gaga for the latest ‘body positivity’ campaign by Dove, which made headlines with its ‘real beauty‘ campaign and has prepared a host of other stunts intended to draw attention to the company like its ‘real women‘ marketing. Many people react positively to these campaigns, citing Dove as an example of doing it right and talking about how great the company is for fighting the power of the beauty industrial complex and empowering women. Few people stop and think about what’s going on here, but thankfully, I’m starting to see a shift.
More and more people are recognising that they should really think twice about the Dove campaigns and whether they should support them. Here’s why.
I. Dove is a company that exists to sell things
This may not come as a complete shock to you, but Dove is a corporation. Its goal as a corporation is to sell things. Like most smart, savvy corporations in the current market, it is well aware that it needs to shift the way it is advertising, so it is relying on a couple of different strategies with its supposed body positivity campaigns to attract and capture market share.
The first is that it wants to trade on the growing trend of corporate social responsibility. More and more companies are learning that members of the general public would prefer to do business with companies they view as ethical. Dove, like other companies, is taking an opportunity to responsibilitywash itself, for lack of a better word, positioning itself as unique from other beauty companies because it cares about consumers are human beings, rather than marketing an artificial and unattainable beauty ideal.
These campaigns are not about selling individual products. They are about selling a specific image, building up brand awareness, and creating a positive relationship between consumers and Dove. The idea is not that you will see one of their viral campaigns and think that you should buy Dove shampoo. The idea is that when you are standing in the store looking at shampoo choices and thinking about what to get, you will recognize the Dove branding and decide to try their shampoo because you have positive associations with the company.
Meanwhile, you’ve been providing them with free marketing by talking about their campaigns, widely linking them, and, critically, discussing them in a positive way. Dove carefully targets these campaigns at major tastemakers and authority figures in the hopes of creating a positive viral effect that will spread their ads, because that is what these campaigns are, quickly through target markets. By doing so, it hopes to beat out other beauty companies.
The bottom line here is that Dove’s sole purpose is to sell things. Not to help you.
II. Dove is positioning itself as opposed to restrictive beauty standards, but is it?
Taking a close look at any of the body positivity campaigns run by Dove, it’s obvious that in fact that company is just reinforcing a beauty standard. While it may be somewhat broader than the hyperconventional standard, there’s still not very much diversity in the representation of ‘beauty’ as defined by Dove. At the same time it tells women they are beautiful as themselves and should feel good about themselves, many representations are missing: fat women, women of colour, disabled women, older women, trans women, for example.
When they are represented, it’s often in least-threatening forms. A size 18, not a 24 or a 28. A light-skinned women of colour. A woman who doesn’t have a visible impairment. A woman in her 40s, not a woman in her 60s or 80s. Trans women who haven’t chosen gender confirmation surgery. The message is that the company is telling all women they are beautiful, but it is not representing ‘all women’ with its campaign. Thus, it is setting and hammering home its own beauty standard.
Remember. This is a company that sells skin whitening creams. This is a company that sells products intended to make your armpits ‘nicer.’ If women are beautiful as themselves, why do they need to bleach their skin? Why do they need to do anything to their armpits?
Dove is a beauty company, so how reliable is it? The company’s goal is to sell beauty products. In order to sell beauty products, you need to convince women that there is something about them that requires beautifying, that their natural beauty as who they are is not sufficient. You need special shampoo and conditioner because your hair is not right. You should use special lotions and soaps or your skin will be ugly. Your armpits aren’t attractive.
How can a company deep in the beauty industry possibly challenge beauty standards without compromising itself? Dove wants to sell products, which is in direct conflict with its supposed message of empowerment. Its parent company, Unilever (about whom more in a moment), is publicly traded, which means it is accountable to shareholders. Dove’s operations are overseen by a board that is interested in profits, not challenging beauty standards, because if Dove’s campaigns were actually successful, it wouldn’t have a reason to be in business.
These campaigns are also rooted in the idea that beauty is important and that as a society we need ‘beauty.’ That women are concerned with their appearances and should be, and should always seek to be more beautiful. This is a direct rejection of the hard work done by many women who’ve argued that in fact what women need is full social acceptance, to be taken seriously as thinkers and doers and creators of things no matter what they do or don’t look like.
Beauty as a priority is not important to some people; whether interior or exterior. Dove’s insistence on reinforcing beauty messaging is a constant subtle reminder that women should be worried about being beautiful.
III. Dove, as a company, is not all that ethical
Unilever is a very large multinational company. Like others in its class, it is not exactly known for its great ethics. It’s focused primarily on profits over people, and doesn’t really care who or what it tramples to get there. The company, for example, also owns Axe, a firm notorious for its repulsively sexist advertising; Dove positions itself in one market, while Axe positions itself in another.
Still think Dove and its parent company care about women?
Unilever, and Dove by extension, tests on animals. Many ethical consumers choose to avoid products tested on animals because such testing is cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary. I have a hard time believing that a company which persists in such testing could be considered ‘socially responsible’ when many beauty firms have moved on from animal testing in lieu of safer, more compassionate, and more effective methods for making sure their products are ready for market.
Unilever has also been criticised for numerous human rights abuses around the world, relying heavily on a labour force of low-paid workers in the Global South who do not have access to basic workplace safety protections. Companies that abuse workers are not behaving ethically, and making people suffer in the name of beauty is hardly what I would call ‘real beauty.’ The company is particularly notorious for its attacks on unions, working vigorously to prevent union organising at its factories.
Dove’s campaigns shouldn’t be lauded, because of what lies behind them. It’s not just that the company is unethical and that the campaigns obviously have clear ulterior motives, but that the campaigns themselves are deeply flawed and don’t even do what they pretend to do. Relying on the beauty industry for personal empowerment is liable to land someone on a slippery slope, because the beauty industry does not have your best interests in mind.
Say no to Dove. And encourage others to do the same.