If you like to watch things get ridiculed on the internet, chances are you’ve seen the latest Dove campaign – they’ve launched six bottles, each supposedly representing a different body type. This controversial move is the latest manifestation of their ‘Real Beauty Pledge’, which makes three promises. First, they’ll always feature ‘real women’ rather than models (who, presumably, are space lizards in well-crafted flesh suits), will ‘portray women as they are in real life’, and will help girls build body confidence. This all sounds lovely, so it’s a real shame that everything Dove says – to avoid beating about the bush – is a racist, misogynistic hoax.
In direct violation of the rules my GCSE history teacher imparted onto me, this isn’t going to be a balanced article. There are no good bits to the campaign, only different levels of awfulness, like a multi-story car park filled with the sins of neoliberalism.
On the entry level, we have the fact that the six bottles aren’t really that diverse. In fact, three of them are pretty much identical, then there’s one that’s almost the same but has boobs, one that’s a melted version of the booby one, and then the melted and non-melted token fat bottles. In fact, it does a pretty perfect job of summing up these sorts of adverts – nothing screams surface corporate diversity like a row of white bodies that don’t look as dissimilar as the brand appears to think.
One storey up, we can ask why Dove’s making bottles that allegedly look like women (but in fact look like bottles) in the first place. Did nobody in that boardroom raise the slight PR problem that this would literally be objectifying women in the aggressively on-the-nose sense of turning them into faceless objects whose only real distinguishing feature is how melty their ‘boobs’ and ‘hips’ are? There’s a pretty blatant element of ciscentrism tying into this that shouldn’t need spelling out: a body being a ‘woman’s body’ is not defined by differing degrees of boobs and bum, but rather by it belonging to a woman.
To some, this might seem to be worthy of little more than a slap on the wrist – Dove has a great track record of producing genuinely lovely viral adverts showing women coming to the realization that they aren’t cave dwelling trolls thanks to the help of various convolutedly positive schemes.
The people who made this advert weren’t trying to objectify or exclude, it wasn’t a boardroom made up of whichever creepy guys used to make the infamous American Apparel ads (hands up who isn’t going to miss those): they were genuinely trying to spread positivity and uplift women, they just missed the mark in a few respects. True, women being trapped forever in bottle form thanks to whatever horrific curse is lingering around the Dove offices isn’t as bad as dismembered teenage legs sticking out of shopping bags or scrunchies being displayed in a crotch shot, but neither the boardrooms that this campaign was born in nor the people who signed it off are the idyllic difference-makers Dove’s adverts might have us assume.
Welcome to the corporate twilight zone that is Unilever. The transnational consumer goods giant owns a pretty ominous number of brands including some fun family favourites such as Marmite, Cornetto and Domestos, as well as Dove and Lynx. Even if you haven’t heard of Lynx, you will have smelt it – that strange school disco smell that every teenage boy thinks is irresistibly attractive. Seeing as Lynx also sells body wash, it would be fair to assume they are marked in a similar way to Dove products, only with a male focus: the bottles would be shaped like variously chubby and bulky dudes, intended to imbue men with body confidence.
Seeing as Dove is just a little subset of a much bigger corporate entity, you’d think that the ethical core of Dove’s commitments would be guiding force for Lynx too. The problem is that that anyone who’s ever seen a Lynx advert knows this is miles from the truth: Lynx adverts are populated by swooning, sexualized women, who are certainly not portrayed as they ‘are in real life’, unless I’m the only woman who doesn’t walk around wearing nothing but whipped cream. So how come Dove has these misguidedly applied, but seemingly legitimate corporate ethics while another subset of the same big brand doesn’t?
Nobody’s likely to be too surprised that the answer to this question is ‘money’. We’re talking about multinational corporations so if we’re looking for motivations, chances are that this is the answer. Dove sells best if it’s making women think it’s an empowering product from a lovely, caring, fluffy company. Lynx sells best if it’s degrading women to make men associate it with rugged (read: toxic) masculinity.
Dove isn’t making its vaguely humanoid bottles because the CEO of Unilever is a woke body positivity activist. It’s making the bottles because it’s done the costings and market research for the campaign and thinks it’ll make them money, or at least contribute sufficiently to their corporate image to make more money through other means in the long run.
You could accuse me of getting carried away in my scepticism here; after all, Lynx made a commitment relatively recently to stop objectifying women in adverts. Maybe things really are changing, and Unilever is developing some morals. You could argue that perhaps we should just embrace the potential for positive social change that Dove’s campaigns have, without spiralling into conspiracy theories about the motives behind them. You’d be wrong.
Lynx made that commitment because sexism – blatant sexism, at least – isn’t selling as well anymore. Fake, surface-level, corporate body positivity is all the rage now, as demonstrated by Dove’s new set of ‘commitments’. I call it fake because, despite being fairly unknown, Unilever openly owns a brand called ‘Fair and Lovely’. Fair and Lovely is a skin whitening cream sold in supermarkets in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore to name just a few, and it’s unfortunately not difficult to get hold of online in western countries either.
If Dove, or rather, Unilever, really wanted women and girls to love themselves, they wouldn’t sell skin whitening cream to children as young as eleven across the world, convincing them that their melanin is something to be destroyed. They would never have marketed Lynx products by feeding directly into the same toxic masculinity that puts women at risk every day. Celebrating a brand’s diversity in its adverts when you know that it’s actively working against those same morals in its business decisions isn’t a measured or even ‘nice’ response. It’s a tacit endorsement of those decisions.
Every time a publication or influential voice say that Dove’s bottles are a ‘nice idea’, body positivity continues to be twisted from the radical and political movement it once was, into a pretty window display behind which the heads of destructive corporations can crouch to count their money. It’s not a nice idea. It’s a business decision.