by Judith Williamson
Issue 83 Summer 2015
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It is over ten years since Unilever launched the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. In response to global research showing that only 2 percent of women considered themselves beautiful, the campaign kicked off in 2004 with a series of billboard photographs by Rankin that showed 'real women' (i.e. not models), whose age, ethnicity or body shape transgressed western stereotypes of beauty, all looking gorgeous in their unique ways. The captions aimed to challenge assumptions by offering a choice of descriptions for an online vote: 'Wrinkled or Wonderful?', 'Fat or Fit?', and so on. The campaign received a great deal of media attention, and has continued to reinvent itself over the last decade in ways that provoke debate and comment. It has incorporated a range of videos (including the prize-winning Evolution, which shows how media images of beauty are created), publicity stunts (a recent one involved inviting women to enter workplaces and shops through doors marked either 'average' or 'beautiful' - unsurprisingly most chose 'average') and institutional alliances: as The Dove Movement for Self-Esteem it has worked, for example, with organisations such as the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides.
Alongside this social campaigning, Dove advertisements have centred on the portrayal of 'real women' who in one way or another fall outside the ubiquitous thin, young, mostly white stereotype of beauty-product adverts, and who are shown in images where 'imperfections' such as scars, freckles, stretch marks and so on are not airbrushed out. The series of cultural interventions described above functions as an ongoing brand-building process which gives a meaning to the individual ads; meanwhile it is the ads themselves, with their non-conventional images of women, that underwrite the social campaign, providing evidence that Dove practises what it preaches.
The ad shown here, which is in many ways quite minimal, can be understood against this wider backdrop. Its strongest reference is to Dove's own campaign and recent history of challenging advertising norms. The confidence with which it makes this reference to its own position is suggested by how little it actually presents on the page. The bulk of it is white background - the woman photographed takes up less than half the space and is even cut off by the left hand side of the frame. This in itself is unusual in an advertisement showing a woman using a product - she would normally be more central, and the image would be focused on her and her body as a means representing the product's essence rather than simply its use.
Here, however, the focus is on the woman's non-stereotypical-ness, which is all Dove needs to show to make its point. It can therefore do what it needs to do quite economically. The woman is black: that in itself is uncommon in mainstream European and North American beauty advertising (this ad ran on the inside cover of a recent Radio Times). Her Afro hairstyle carries a key part of the ad's meaning: she has not succumbed to the 'white' norm of straightened hair. There is an echo of the 1960s slogan 'black is beautiful', which was associated with precisely the issue of not straightening hair or whitening the skin (It is unfortunate, though not surprising, that Unilever also manufactures Fair & Lovely skin lightening cream, not to mention Slimfast - capitalism has never been noted for consistency).
However, on the basis of her natural attributes alone, the woman shown could still in theory be a model, albeit one with a less frequently seen skin colour and hairstyle. So what is it about the image that codes her as 'real'? A key element is perhaps the fact that she is deliberately not sexualised. It is a modest image: the whole of her chest and torso are covered by a white towel, which blends with the background, and only her head and shoulders and part - not even all - of her arms are visible. Her skin and limbs are not photographed in such a way as to sensualise them for the viewer - they are not in close-up, or angled so as to be presented as 'available', but instead her figure is seen straightforwardly at a short distance.
Another element is the fact that the woman is laughing and appears to be looking at something specific - her arm, which she is touching to feel the effect of the advertised product. Women in beauty ads often smile, usually in a seductive or mysterious way, but they don't laugh. They never look at anything directly unless it is the viewer - or else they look vaguely into the middle distance. A flick through any glossy magazine will confirm that the typical beauty ad model is shown either looking straight out of the page, offering eye contact in a manner that is invariably seductive at some level, or alternatively looking out of the frame in a dreamy unfixed way that is also seductive since it implies openness and availability. The woman in the Dove ad appears to be feeling and responding to something independently of the viewer, which is highly antithetical to the general mode of glamour advertising.
A further key element is the inclusion of three small moles on the woman's arm - her left arm, which is stretched towards us - which codes the image as 'authentic' and nonairbrushed in a way that seems to guarantee its 'real woman' credentials. Whereas in a conventional ad, the glamorised female body would be the vehicle for giving meaning to the product, here it is the process of 'nonglamorisation' itself that is the vehicle for the ad's meaning. The interesting question about the Dove ads is not simply whether models or 'real women' are used in them (and of course, models are also real women) but what the visual codes are that say 'real woman' rather than model. We may interpret these codes in a Dove ad as unthinkingly as we interpret their counterparts in conventional advertising: but awareness of them gives an insight into the portrayal of women generally in advertisements, which is Dove's claimed purpose. Its other purpose, of course, is to sell its products.
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