Dove’s last stand in Virtue Wars

Last week, I sat down with my 10-year-old daughter to watch a short video titled “Toxic Influence,” a product of the Dove Self-Esteem Project. We watched as five groups of moms and their daughters appeared in turns on upholstered chairs before a giant screen, glasses of water shaking between generations. A text appeared: “We invite parents and their daughters to talk about social networks.”

In the video, one mom says she thinks social media can be good or bad, while another says it can build trust; one girl says that she believes she has had a mostly positive impact on her life. The girls are then told to start scrolling on their phones. Images appear on the big screen, quick clips of TikTok-esque influencers promoting bizarre beauty tricks. “Most parents underestimate how harmful toxic beauty advice on social media can be,” the text says. Then, out of left field: “Using facial mapping technology, we put highly toxic advice into their mothers’ mouths.” Now the five mothers appear on the movie screen, digitally transformed into people doling out grotesque recommendations: how you’re never too young for “baby botox”; how at home lip injection kits are so amazing; how there are powders you can take to skip meals; How to straighten teeth with a nail file. “Skinny,” the latest toxic influencer/fake mom tells us, “is never done.”

“You would not tell that to your daughter,” announces the text. “But she still listens to it online, every day.” The mothers are shocked, the daughters contrite. We are told that the Dove Self-Esteem Project has created tools that parents can use to “help their girls detoxify their food.” (At this point, my daughter, whose primary use of online media is still YouTube craft videos, looked at me skeptically.) The ad invites viewers to a page on Dove’s website, which warns me that “1 in 2 girls say toxic beauty advice on social media causes low self-esteem” and offers resources including something called a Beauty Kit. confidence. There is also a brand podcast, through which they will tell me that one problem with toxic influencers is that their posts are often sponsored and therefore advertising. A nesting doll of paranoia begins to emerge: a marked entity now whispers to me how other marked entities whisper to my children.

Like many giant brands, Dove used to be a single product with advertising focused on what that product did. For most of my youth, Dove was a “beauty bar” whose key claim was that it was “a quarter of a moisturizer” and therefore less drying to skin than soap. However, at the beginning of this century, its manufacturer, Unilever, transformed it into a “master brand” of personal care that included lotions, hairsprays and other products. To advertise the newly diversified Pigeon, a single message was sought. In 2004, the Campaign for Real Beauty was launched.

It would become one of the most successful campaigns in advertising history. With its use of “real women” with “real curves” (his first famous ads for him featured a laughing multicultural gang in white underwear) it felt so innovative that he got his own “Oprah” episode. (Enough to gloss over the fact that those early ads were for a line of firming products.) Dove’s sales soared, and its ads continued to build a fantasy world of aspirational “reality,” a pink ribbon of any kind. fleshy norm that generated insecurity, from fat stigma to racism and ageism. Through it all, Unilever continued to produce the Slim-Fast diet powder (until it sold the brand in 2014), the Fair & Lovely skin-lightening line (now Glow & Lovely, and no longer marketed as a lightener), several “anti-aging” and, of course, the Ax body spray for men, whose advertising could be so demeaning to women that it can hardly be seen today.

You can no longer feign an aura of general righteousness.

Hypocrisy isn’t new in advertising, but taking a do-gooder line has certainly seen easier times. I don’t know what Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad would look like today, but back in 2017, when Pepsi tried what we would now call an “awakened” variation: Kendall Jenner joined a protest march and gave it a soda to a policeman: it was an absolute dud, and the ad was immediately withdrawn. You can no longer feign an aura of general righteousness. Take a stand and you are expected to defend it every time, in the right way, under unprecedented scrutiny.

Dove would experience a barrage of backlash. A body wash commercial faced boycott threats for a sequence in which a black woman appeared to turn into a white woman (who later turned into a brown-skinned woman; the ad was quickly pulled). A video called “Real Beauty Sketches,” in which a forensic artist drew what women told him they looked like, was criticized as patronizing. When the brand introduced limited-edition body wash bottles in the shapes of different body types (slim, round, pear, larger pear!), some wondered if Dove had lost its touch; Who wanted to be in the supermarket deciding if she was a pear or a bigger pear? Younger consumers have shown that they like to see their brands politically engaged, but that same drive makes them watch out for blind spots and tonal errors. In the years since Real Beauty, Dove has been criticized for not featuring enough “naturally thin women” and for being obsessed with beauty, period.

Thus, “Toxic Influence” feels like the work of a brand retreating from the politicized world of body positivity. Dove has found a way to align with virtue and outrage without mentioning her own beauty advice. No one is siding with nightmarish YouTubers telling teenagers to sharpen their teeth; attacking those people is like shooting fish in a barrel. But as marketing, it’s almost genius: striking the right tone and remaining as inoffensive as any mega-brand wants.

One drawback, for example, for a working single mother of two girls like me, is that we now have a corporation that sells volumizing hair care and “pro-age” creams that exhort us to fix not only our bodies or ourselves , but also TikTok. and Instagram, or at least our children’s relationship with them.

Yesterday I picked up my 10 year old son’s old turquoise iPod Touch to see what was in it. I found some selfies he took, as serious as Morticia Addams, the way kids like it these days. I also found some chatty videos she made of herself painting seashells, copying the style of her favorite arts and crafts youtuber of hers. From time to time, she would push back her tangled hair with her open hands, as people with long fingernails do. My daughter does not have long nails. Her favorite YouTuber yes. The amount of culture ingested in this small gesture stopped me in my tracks. This was nothing a “detox” tooth filer food could address. It was bigger: everything he sees, all the time, everywhere, an open fire hydrant of messages, including, however much they prefer to appear above it, Dove’s.


Source photos: YouTube screenshots

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