A couple of days ago I ran across the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ video that’s been making the rounds.
[The TLDW précis – A series of women describe themselves while a former police sketch artist behind a curtain draws them. That same sketch artist then redraws the same women, but this time based on the description of strangers who’ve just been introduced to them. The women are then shown the pictures side by side, and they realize that they’ve describe themselves in what are (in the terms of the ad) harsher or more pejorative terms than the strangers. They don’t know how beautiful they are.]
Now, it’s a beautifully put together video, but something about it made me a bit queasy. There was a tang of fakeness about it, like the metallic aftertaste of aspartame in a can of diet coke. There was, I couldn’t help feeling, something actually quite nasty about that two and a half minute clip. Something, dare I say it, sketchy.
The internet at large on the other hand (with some exceptions, like Jazz here), seems to love it. It’s been viewed some 8 million times on YouTube and is being reposted on Facebook with comments like “All girls should watch this.” The top comment on YouTube concludes “Basically this is saying people don’t realize how good they look.”
Except no, that’s not what the film is saying, at least not all of it. It’s not the point of the video. That comes 2 mins and 15 seconds in, when one of the women says:
“I should be more grateful for my natural beauty, it impacts the choices and friends we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.’
There. That. Jazz is spot on to highlight it. That’s what this video is about. That’s the payload this particular rocket was designed to deliver. And the way I know that, is that it’s an advert, and that’s the message which is telling you that you need what they want you to buy.
I watched the video again, and little bits phrasing popped out at me – the constant casting of ‘thin’ in positive terms ‘She was thin, so you could see her cheekbones.’ ‘A nice thin chin’ and then the sly, vicious juxtaposition of ‘she seems fatter and… sadder.’
It’s difficult not to feel like Dove are playing good cop here, after Heat and Vogue’s bad cops have thrown you down the stairs to the cells and threatened you with life without parole. She might be nicer about it, but that doesn’t mean Good Cop wants your confession any less. She and Bad Cop are a team.
There’s one video I watched again recently (thanks to this piece on Cracked), that the Dove sketch Ad did remind me of –
Key phrases: ‘Only one thing counts in this life. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, CLOSE.’
In tone, it couldn’t be more different from the Dove ad’s soft focus and plinky-plonky (a technical term) piano, but the core message is structurally identical. There is precisely one aspect of you that is interesting and important. One. Pay close attention, I’m going to suggest something you can do to make it better.
It’s probably not that surprising that underneath the cosmetics, the Dove video is the same as Blake’s rant. The Dove ad execs are salespeople after all. If anyone at Campaign For Real Beauty HQ actually did come up with an ad that told prospective customers that they ought to worry about their looks less – that really did communicate the vital, if clichéd truth that physical beauty is, and should be, way less important that the media makes it out to be – you know what they’d hear from their boss?
“Fuck you. If you wanna work here, CLOSE.”
This isn’t really meant to be me yelling at Dove. They’re just doing what advertisers do. Rather, what intrigues me about the response the Dove ad has gotten is that people are relating to it like it isn’t just an advert. And maybe they’re right to. The video is indicative of a world where marketing has become so ubiquitous and so evolved that it’s moved beyond simply being a tool to sell us things. And the more we are saturated by marketing, the more the boundaries between marketing and everything else begin to blur. The easier it is for us to forget its an ad at all.
As Andy Warhol demonstrated, branding can be art. It can tell us things that are interesting and maybe even true. The Dove Ad does that. A lot of us are our own harshest critics. But even so, not just an ad is still an ad. It’s still selling, and that truth is the spoonful of sugar that helps their medicine go down.
Somebody said recently, I can’t remember who, that in Capitalist Democracies, buying is voting. And if buying is voting, then advertising, in seeking to influence that vote is argument, debate, propaganda. It can be informative sure, it can even be beautiful, but when we live in a world where it’s growing tough to tell what is, and isn’t an ad, it’s increasingly important to ask, when watching any piece of media: ‘Who paid for this? And what do they want me to pay for next?’