Sorry, Dove: I'm not buying your brand of female empowerment
On Wednesday Dove posted its newest campaign, "Patches," to YouTube. The new video is familiar terrain for the company that, for the last 10 years, has continuously built its brand on peddling a nebulous thing to women called "real beauty."
Dove has been incredibly successful branding itself as a beauty company that doesn't believe in beauty. Or, at least, one that doesn't believe in physical beauty. In 2004, Dove launched its much-lauded Campaign for Real Beauty, a media blitz that featured "real" women of different shapes and sizes all proclaiming that they love themselves just as they are. It was a profitable ploy for an advertising campaign designed to sell cellulite-firming cream: Dove saw a sizeable increase in revenue, and the viral ads became YouTube and Facebook favorites.
In 2010, Dove pivoted from the Campaign for Real Beauty to the Movement for Self-Esteem, of which "Patches" is the latest installment. The new campaign features a group of women who, for unknown reasons, are meeting with Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist, diet book author, and Unilever consultant.
Kearney-Cooke prescribes the ailing women featured in the campaign an RB-X patch, the ingredients of which are unknown. The women are asked to wear the patch for two weeks and keep a video diary detailing how they feel. Over that absurdly short time frame, the women morph from their insecure selves into empowered, confident women. They then return to Kearney-Cooke, who reveals the contents of the patch — they are all shocked to find that the patch contains "nothing."
"Patches" strikes me as a fictional campaign conjured up in the writers' room of Mad Men. Indeed, Dove has been Draper-like in its ability to create brand affinities instead of hawking an actual product.
Its ads foster the belief that its products are more than just cosmetic, that they somehow enhance an inner beauty that exists in a place untouchable by beauty products. By marketing "real beauty," Dove has forever branded itself as a cosmetics company that cares about women's well-being; an Oprah-esque leader ready with an inspirational platitude, a partner in the fight against negative body images, a feminist friend ready to guide you away from inauthentic beauty.
Dove's ability to intertwine "real beauty" with profit has been so popular that the selling of self-esteem is now ubiquitous. American Eagle's Aerie brand debuted a lingerie campaign featuring "real unphotoshopped girls." (The campaign is simply known as "Real.") Special K's recent campaign "Fight Fat Talk" encourages women to embrace their bodies while selling diet food. Each of these campaigns capitalizes on a longing for authenticity, an undefined state of truth in which women's bodies aren't manipulated by glossy magazines and women are valued for attributes other than their physical beauty.
But they exist in a state of denial. While advocating empowerment and selling authenticity, these brands still position themselves as the arbiters of "real" beauty.
"We have heard from thousands of women about how their complicated relationship with beauty affects their overall confidence and happiness," Jennifer Bremner, the brand building director for Dove, told Mashable. "By illustrating through the 'Dove: Patches' film that a positive state of mind and openness can help them feel more beautiful, we hope to inspire all women and change the way they see themselves."
Bremner's ad-speak is drawn from an internal marketing study commissioned by Dove in 2004. The study is worth reading as it constitutes a near-perfect case study in how brands create crises. Dove's study found that only a small percentage of women identified themselves as beautiful, while the vast majority of women described themselves as "average" and "natural." From the study, Dove's marketing team, rather brilliantly, decided to emphasize the lack, to pitch to women that they should feel beautiful, and sell them the should as empowerment. Its underlying message is little different from companies that plainly create insecurity to sell their products.
We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a vital kinship between the consumer and the product — Dove soap is "you," this shampoo is "yours" — and social media affords us endless opportunities to advertise and rationalize our brand loyalties. Dove's campaigns allow a consumer to "like" and purchase its products to explain "this is who I am." Buying Dove provides consumers with the opportunity to acquire empowerment, to simply swipe a credit card and buy iconoclastic social action abstractly meant to improve the lot of women. Empowerment, an amorphous feeling that signifies feminism-lite, is Dove's identity — but empowerment, or any other ideology, cannot be bought and sold.