The Dove ads that won’t end

Like nearly every other feminist blogger, I’ve written about the Dove ads before. And yet, I have more to say.

These ads have created quite a stir, and not just in feminist circles. They’ve prompted op/eds in major national newspapers. They’re being discussed on blog after blog. And you can’t turn on the TV, read a women’s magazine or walk down an urban street without seeing them.

There seem to be a few camps of thought out there when it comes to these ads. First is the group that says, “Real women! Right on!” and ends with that. Then there are those that say, “This is another ad campaign, still negotiating women’s bodies to sell products, and that is bad.” And then there’s the “These women aren’t models, how dare they be on billboards” set. To me, though, all of these views are insufficient.

Twisty, as usual, has a really fantastic take on the ads. Read her post. I agree with her. But at the same time, I don’t dislike the ads as much as she does. And while I find them problematic, it’s for slightly different reasons.

For me, it comes down to one question: What do we, as feminists, want from advertising culture, and what do we reasonably expect? There are those of us who see advertising as inherently evil, and will argue that any form of it is dehumanizing and bad. If that’s where you’re coming from, then it’s perfectly consistent to dislike the Dove ads. But, if you’re coming from where I am — which is where you’re critical of advertising, but recognize its necessity in our economic system (or at least recognize it as something that isn’t ever going to disappear) — then the Dove ads become harder to criticize.

Now, they certainly aren’t impossible to criticize — after all, they’re selling ass-firming cream, which is pretty antithetical to feminist ideals in itself. So yes, it is shitty that Dove makes ass cream. It is shitty that so many women feel the need to purchase ass cream. It is shitty that there are a lot of rich white guys making a lot of money off of women’s ass insecurities. If I see ass cream in someone’s bedroom, I think that they are unnecessarily self-critical and even vain.

So here’s my dirty little secret: I use ass-firming cream. It’s not Dove brand, but if Dove ass-firming cream worked, I’d use that, too. If someone offered me free liposuction, I’d probably take it. And while I’m certainly not skinny, I’m not obese or even very overweight — I’m short, and probably built smaller than most of the Dove “real women.” And while it’s deeply humiliating to be copping to my ass-firming and liposuction fantasies on a feminist blog (or in any sort of public space, but particularly here), I think it speaks truth to a lot of things: that the cult of beauty affects even women who should know better, and that beauty culture can work in quiet and subversive ways that undermine even the strongest political beliefs. That doesn’t mean that politics don’t help — I’d bet that self-identified, politicized feminists use less ass cream than non-feminists. But the fact is that as long as ass cream is in demand, it will be produced and sold, and it will be advertised. That sucks. But that’s how it works.

It’s circular, of course — ass cream is in demand because beauty culture creates a demand for it; buying ass cream reinforces and recreates that beauty culture; and advertisers of ass cream and other beauty accoutrements help to create an unattainable beauty standard that will create a demand for more ass cream. And part of the reason that ass cream sells is because women are told that beauty is valuable, and that it’s even attainable — provided that you’re willing to work hard enough. My problem isn’t the fact that we have beauty ideals. Every culture has them; hell, the animal kingdom has them. Recognizing and admiring beauty isn’t the issue. The issue is how narrow and unhealthy our culture’s definition of beauty is, how we present beauty itself as the highest feminine ideal (ahead of, say, intelligence), and how we’ve created an unwinnable situation for women within that culture. Beauty, we say, is achievable, as long as you invest time, money and effort. But at the same time, you’re never supposed to know that you’re beautiful — read any fairytale and you figure out pretty quickly that female beauty is thoroughly rewarded, but only if the beautiful female doesn’t realize that she’s beautiful, and never tries to be beautiful. But if you’re beautiful, even outside of fairytales, things happen to you — you get the prince, you get a promotion, you even get to keep your job (since not being beautiful enough is grounds for termination in some occupations).

So beauty will get you places, but you should not try to be beautiful, and you can never recognize that you may indeed be beautiful, and yet you must work at attaining beauty.

That’s what women are faced with. Oh, and if you break the rules, watch out. If you recognize or promote your own beauty, you’re the evil witch (think the Queen in Snow White) or, more likely, a sexual deviant who uses her physical powers to emasculate and destroy men. If you don’t work at beauty, you’re lazy and ugly and you can be duly punished — like, for example, losing your job because you didn’t wear lipstick. And even if you do fit the standards of beauty, if you slip up for a second there will be plenty of people to smirk at your fall — just think of the dark pleasure that so many of us take in seeing candid pictures of celebrity women looking “ugly” without their makeup, or the popularity of “worst dressed” lists.

So, to me, beauty itself isn’t the issue. I like beautiful things. I like looking at beautiful people. But when a culture definies “beauty” in a ridiculously limited way, tells one class of people (women) that beauty must be their primary goal and is the ultimate key to success, and then makes beauty nearly impossible to obtain but yet requires that we try our hardest to obtain it, it creates a mass neurosis.

Of course, we have to deal with the root causes — why do women feel that they need to use ass cream in the first place? How have we created a culture which points to just one body type and labels it as singularly “beautiful”? How can we get to a point where beauty is one characteristic among many that are valued — and where it’s a characteristic that is valued less highly than things like intelligence and creativity? These are all issues with ties to advertising. Ideally, women wouldn’t buy ass cream in the first place — there would be no demand for it, and so it wouldn’t be advertised or sold. But that clearly isn’t what’s happening here. So while attacking the demand is key, in order to do that we have to deal with the ads. We have to recognize that beauty ideals aren’t going away, and so we should work to reshape them. Relatedly, beauty advertising isn’t going away (at least not anytime soon), and so we have to reshape how we want beauty items advertised — and yet we have to remain critical of the items themselves. The first step to dealing with demand is injecting a diversity of women’s images into mass culture. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here), if the anorexic body was only one part of a wide spectrum of body types given equal value in beauty culture, its presence wouldn’t be problematic. It’s the fact that the anorexic body is not only held up as the ideal, but is really the only image of women’s bodies that we’re exposed to through advertising and beauty pornography, that is damaging. So yes, the Dove ads are pitching a shitty, problematic product. But at the very least, they’re putting different bodies out there. They’re still using women’s bodies to sell things, and one can argue that it doesn’t matter what kind of bodies they’re using — they’re still being used. But I think it does matter what kinds of bodies are being used, because that use both reflects a beauty ideal and reinforces it. And I see no good reason not to expand that beauty ideal as widely as possible.

So are the Dove ads the progressive ideal? No way. As many other commentators have pointed out, the women in the Dove ads still fit the beauty mold more closely than someone who has stomach rolls, or a really flat chest, or someone who is physically disabled, or even someone with blemished skin or imperfect teeth. None of the Dove women could be called “ugly” by our cultural beauty standards. They don’t obliterate beauty ideals. But they expand them. They deviate from the super-skinny advertising mold. And the more that beauty is de-mystified and re-classified as something that even “real women” are capable of, and the more diverse “beautiful” becomes, the less hold the beauty cult will have on us — and eventually, hopefully, that will mean that fewer women are buying ass-firming cream because they think they have to.

They don’t answer all of our dreams, and they aren’t perfectly (or even mostly) feminist, but they’re a start. And after years of wishing that magazines and advertisers would use more realistic-looking women, I’m not going to attack this ad campaign to the point of saying that they shouldn’t even have done it. I’d rather take the position that this is a decent, tentative start, and now they need to do even better and go even farther. And we need to continue to criticize and deconstruct beauty culture, but we have to do so with a coherent and reasonable set of demands and expectations.

Further reading about the Dove campaign, if you feel like being thoroughly irritated:
Fat-phobic male entitlement syndrome at its best — in summation, women in ads are there for me (me being a heterosexual male) to look at — even if they’re advertising a product intended for other women — and therefore their bodies should fit neatly into what I consider a pleasing form. The article itself is good — the content is puke-worthy.

A Vogue writer says we should let models do their job, and leave “real women” out of advertising — it’s just a little too close to home. She also tosses in an inexplicable, unrelated slap at feminists and Our Bodies, Ourselves.

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26 comments for “The Dove ads that won’t end

  1. August 5, 2005 at 6:52 am

    I’m taking basically the same approach that you are. Yes, it would be great if we could obliterate the beauty culture, but given that it’s not going anywhere in the immediate future then expanding the standard a bit can’t hurt. The fact that so many people are reacting with “ew, icky non-models” is in itself proof that expanding the standard is a worthwhile endevour to me. I’m kind of glad it’s pissing them off, to be honest.
    I think it’s worth talking more openly amongst ourselves about how we as feminists feel about the beauty myth and the ways in which we do or don’t buy into it. I’m a little ambivalent about the way in which we all feel so damn guilty about our lapses into beauty myth thinking, like your ass cream and my addiction to expensive shoes. I kind of feel like we may be being too hard on ourselves, and may even be playing into the “fat and hairy-legged” anti-feminist stereotype. I think that there is value in publicly defying that stereotype, and yet I wory that by doing so I may be marginalising those of my sisters who want nothing to do with any manifestation of the beauty culture. It’s a touchy subject, and worth talking about in more detail.
    If you’ll forgive me blogwhoring a bit here, I’ve been musing over the whole “how do I fit into the beauty culture and what are my responsibilities as a feminist” subject myself. If you felt like dropping by and chiming in I’d love to hear your take on it!

  2. August 5, 2005 at 7:37 am

    A Vogue writer says we should let models do their job, and leave “real women” out of advertising — it’s just a little too close to home. She also tosses in an inexplicable, unrelated slap at feminists and Our Bodies, Ourselves.


  3. August 5, 2005 at 8:38 am

    For some reason, I would think that the executives at whatever company produces Dove are lighting cigars with C-notes right about now. Are they really keeping it real? As soon as anyone types word one on the subject, you can hear the distant “ching” of a thousand cash registers.

    As for what anybody should expect from the advertising culture: I think the historical experience indicates the answer is “very little.”

  4. Jim H from Indiana
    August 5, 2005 at 8:53 am

    I guess I’m totally out of the loop. I haven’t seen the ads and don’t have a clue. (Maybe my daughter is right, I’m so “unhip.”)

    I will comment, however, on the “need” to be beautiful. The need is completely internal. Women and men (oh yes, men too) obsess on their looks because they lack self confidence in a variety of things, not the least of which is how they appear. Self-confident men and women, while wanting to appear neat, don’t necessarily obsess about their looks. They don’t need to.

    This is, of course, a great over-simplification. But I firmly believe this. These Dove ads may be trying to appeal to that inner confidence (“Wow, I’d never pose for an ad like that because of how I look. But they did! Wow!). Maybe we’re all reading too much into these ads. Again, I haven’t seen them and frankly, I don’t really care if I do!

  5. Laurie
    August 5, 2005 at 9:31 am


    Well thought out and *very* well articulated commentary! You’ve hit the nail on the head — I’ve had much the same thought process re: advertising, but have not been able to take the time to analyze it that thoroughly. Further than thinking “does anyone REALLY believe that ‘firming cream’ actually WORKS these days?!?”

    Hmmmmmm, must get hands on a copy of “The Beauty Myth”…. It sounds fascinating.

  6. August 5, 2005 at 10:13 am

    Comment left at Twisty’s

    Our entire society is based on looks, and it is more biological than you think. No it does not give one right to objectify anyone, but I did notice that when I started to work out again and lose body fat I recieved more smiles and advances from women, even younger women.

    And the fact is that the women in the dove commercials are not as they would be waking up on a Saturday morning. My favorite Sigreid, yes I even have a favorite, claims they fixed her hair apllied makeup etc. So really Dove just thought of an advertising scheme to get people to buy their stuff, and people are falling for it had over foot.

  7. August 5, 2005 at 10:19 am

    But does ass cream even work? Because it always looked like it wouldn’t. But I digress.

    What has always astonished and saddened me has not been that different people like different body types–or even that more people seem to like whatever’s popular (skinny these days). It’s that some people aren’t satisfied with having a preference, that they direct hostility towards women who don’t fit that ideal, and see their failure to fit it as a moral failing of some sort. Or even stranger, as a personal slight–larger women are not only ugly, they are being ugly on purpose to piss you off.

    It is as you say, an astonishing sense of entitlement to be surrounded only by women who meet your personal standards. And anything that challenges it, even if it’s just an ass-cream ad, is hard for me to dislike.

  8. August 5, 2005 at 10:31 am

    As for what anybody should expect from the advertising culture: I think the historical experience indicates the answer is “very little.”

    It’s probably not wise to expect the “advertising culture” to contibute a lot of positive elements to our culture. After all, no said to Lorenzo Di Medici “Yes, well, Leonardo and Michaelangelo are just lovely but what are you doing for our culture?

    In the same vein (although I don’t think our current television, radio, and Internet figures can be compared to the greats of the renaissance), advertising funds the things we love today. So, in terms of what we can expect from advertising, here are a few things:

    -Free radio.
    -Free network television, inexpensive cable television.
    -Free Internet news, entertainment, etc.
    -(Marginally) cheaper movie tickets.
    -Concerts and other public events
    -Professional sports

    Advertising’s job isn’t to be thought-provoking, sensitive, and culturally positive, although it’d be lovely if it was. Advertising, from the payer’s perspective, should be doing one thing: selling more whatevers. If it doesn’t sell, it’s not worth it, and if it’s not worth it, then all the free things that come with it, that Americans have grown to expect, go away.

  9. August 5, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Question: Does ass cream work? Somebody explain.

  10. AB
    August 5, 2005 at 11:14 am

    What do we, as feminists, want from advertising culture, and what do we reasonably expect?

    My take on this is that feminists–and other social movements of late–have started to expect advertising and the mass media to solve issues of social inequality. Or perhaps more broadly, we’ve begun to accept that representation is the cause of the problem, rather than a reflection of it. I believe that representations of women in the mass media and elsewhere do, in some ways, create more inequality. But in terms of the split, I’d say it’s responsible for maybe 5-10% of the cause of sexism.

    It reminds me of Naomi Wolf’s book No Logo. She talks for a bit about how the media and advertising cycles have grown so short that a new social movement doesn’t even have time to become established before it’s co-opted to sell some product. Thus, anger about exploitation of low-wage workers get channeled into buying a Che shirt. Anger about problems of labor force discrimination, sexual violence, and the “double shift” women face get channeled into buying Luna pads or BUST magazine or some snarky t-shirt with a pithy saying.

    I, for one, would rather give my money to a feminist organization than a non-feminist one. Hell, I use the Keeper rather than enriching Tampax. I’m not against capitalism. But it does seem a bit short-sighted and wrong to me to expect that Dove or any other company to be any significant part of the solution (other than perhaps through good labor policies). I don’t think the problem of misogyny is likely to be solved by consumerism in any form.

  11. August 5, 2005 at 11:46 am

    Jill’s brand seems to, but I’m not inclined to beleive that any of these cosmetic products actually worked. If they did, then everybody would be “beautiful.”

  12. August 5, 2005 at 11:53 am

    I wasn’t kidding when I left a comment on a previous post here on this topic. Something to the effect of, “I guess we should stop watching TV and fashion magazines.” I’m pretty sure it was ignored.

    Advertising media, in which making the audience second-guess their own self-worth is considered an art, is an affront on the senses. I’m in the Bill Hicks camp when it comes to advertising, by the way.

    I’ve never read fashion magazines, but I gave up watching television a couple years ago, and it was one of the simplest things I could have done to feel “more beautiful” in my own skin. No ass cream necessary.

  13. August 5, 2005 at 2:10 pm

    Ass cream does not work, unless by “work” you mean, “get consumers to hurl their money at it.” I promise. Been there, done that. See my post here if you want the whole sordid story. The spirit is hopeful, but the flesh will always succumb to the laws of gravity and decay.

  14. August 5, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    Oh, and Ryan, I totally agree — I don’t have a TV in the house and it’s amazing how much money you don’t have to spend when you are not subject to a constant barrage of manufactured needs. In the advertising equation, your attention is the product; it is your brain that is being sold to underwrite all your free TV shows. And then you are asked to turn around and subsidize that sale by obediently purchasing more more more stuff you don’t even really want.

  15. August 5, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    Best viral marketing campaign ever. So much free advertising it’s kind of incredible. Great that it’s created so much dialogue… even if it’s far from perfect. (though I have to say they started a second round of posters in NYC lately, so I’ve seen them all life-sized, and I’m really impressed by how little airbrushing was used).

    Shankar- every human being – even advertisers – can and should be expected to adhere to moral and ethical standards. I know you love devil’s advocate abstractions, but your absolute capitalism argument can be used to justify crime too, though I don’t think we need to go there.

  16. August 5, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    You know what’s sad? I have more to write on it as well. Maybe I should stop selling their products for them.

  17. August 5, 2005 at 3:04 pm

    Just wait until round two, where they get realer

  18. August 5, 2005 at 3:23 pm

    Will they? Or are you just leading me on.

  19. August 5, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    I think so. They’d be stupid not to capitalize on all the buzz. Like I said, they increased promotion in NYC recently – after all the talk.

  20. August 5, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    What a great, subtlely complex discussion, both in the body of the post and in the comments. Thanks to Jill and thanks to everybody commenting.

    I might characterize a lot about what you’re saying by alluding to the old ‘theory vs. practice’ distinction. For some, in theory, capitalism is patriarchy–but even those people (most of ’em), if they are in a place to see the Dove ads, are living with capitalism in practice, so the question becomes how far can we push patriarchy/sexism/racism/etc to the margins from within capitalism. Which is one take on what you’re saying here.

    I will point out one little discrepency that I have with something you said. You said:

    Ideally, women wouldn’t buy ass cream in the first place — there would be no demand for it, and so it wouldn’t be advertised or sold.”

    I think this leaves out, at least for the moment, the idea that the ‘demand’ is created by the advertising; it’s not as if the company looked for a demand (you know, look around, women want ass cream!) and then created the advertising. Or at least its a more complicated relationship than that.

  21. August 5, 2005 at 9:06 pm

    I guess what I was getting at in a previous comment section on a previous post on these ads (which I still have not encountered in person) is that in the science fiction field, we are used to seeing scantily clad women in plus-plus sizes. There have got to be other subcultures like that. I’m not sure if this is right, but the phrase that comes to me is that perhaps it would work better to promote the rise of subcultures with advanced notions of size-acceptance rather than addressing one’s commentary to the well-defended fashion industry directly.

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  23. August 6, 2005 at 1:15 am

    Well, there’d be no point in my buying ass cream even if it did work; I’d just wind up stowing it under the sink and then forgetting where I’d put it.

  24. August 7, 2005 at 9:20 pm

    I thought the campaign was supposed to be about “beauty.” I recall a few photos initially, one most striking, involving a woman well into her 70s or 80s, face full of wrinkles and liver spots/freckles, yet with a lovely smile and a glint in her eye.

    Speaking as a woman, and considering that the “average & some larger than average” women in those Dove ads are supposed to be advertising DOVE products I will say this:

    1. I do not buy Dove products.

    2. This ad campaign has not convinced me to START buying Dove products (well maybe Dove CHOCOLATE, but that’s a different company altogether, isn’t it?).

    3. Empowerment comes from within, not from some a manipulative ad campaign which is supposed to make me contrast/compare myself with those women, which is no different than any other ad campaign with the modeling equivalent of a famine victim/heroin addict attempting to make me contrast/compare myself with them. Aren’t there any savvy women advertising executives out there? How is this ad campaign any different than those FDS commercials in the 70s from Alberto Culver?

  25. Creeping Jenny
    August 8, 2005 at 12:11 pm

    Unlike medicines, neither cosmetics nor supplements have to work, in order to be sold as cures for any real or imagined ill. So while we’d have to do double blind trials to know for sure, we have no reason to suppose that ass cream works. There also doesn’t seem to be any biochemical explanation for why we might expect it the ingredients in ass cream to work. And finally, it’s not clear that it would be more profitable to sell if it actually did work (as people buy it already, without knowing, and reasearch/development cost money). So I’m pretty skeptical.

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