by Alexandra Winchester

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” advertisement seemingly seeks to defy western culture’s obsession with physical beauty by, paradoxically, selling women beauty products. Dove’s advertisement features average, yet still attractive, women being sketched twice by a forensic artist. These sketches are both done blindly, as the forensic artist never actually sees his subject, and the women go in to filming not knowing they are being sketched. The first sketch is based on descriptions given by the subject themselves. The second sketch is based on descriptions given by another observer. The resulting sketches are starkly different, with the sketches based off of the subject’s descriptions being less “beautiful.” The women, and hopefully the viewers, come away from the advertisement with the epiphany that they are more beautiful than they realize.

On the surface Dove’s advertisement comes across as almost altruistic, this is after all a beauty company telling women they are more beautiful than previously led to believe. In fact, in this particular advertisement Dove does not even market a specific product, but rather the tag line “You are more beautiful than you think.” In a society where women are consistently bombarded with specific ideals of beauty: young, thin, symmetrical, delicate, and glamorous, Dove’s tag line is refreshing, so refreshing it is almost revolutionary . Unfortunately, upon closer inspection it seems that Dove’s advertisement is just as conventional as any other beauty advertisement, it’s just incredibly subtle at making women feel as though they are not beautiful enough.

There is little question as to who the advertisement is targeting, : women. With the exception of the forensic artist, and two men who act as observers, the advertisement consists entirely of women. There are no men having their portraits drawn, no men looking down visually ashamed stating that their chin “protrudes a bit, especially when I smile” or that their “mom told me I have a big jaw.” But the omission of men from their advertisement is alright, because Dove is not trying to profit from men’s insecurities about themselves, they are trying to profit from women’s.

Why not blatantly sell a product? Why does Dove not simply compare their shampoo’s performance to a salon competitor’s? Perhaps it is because Dove is trying to foster brand loyalty rather than bolster sales for a specific product. Dove effectively accomplishes this by utilizing a pathos approach. The advertisement make us, women, feel good about ourselves, but not good enough to quit using commercial beauty products altogether. Dove essentially tells its target market: “You’re not as ugly as you thought, but you’re still ugly, use Dove.” They tell us this by continuing to reinforce a western standard of beauty.

As the portraits are revealed, and the women share their epiphanies about their “natural beauty” they still manage, subtly of course, to reinforce standards of western beauty. Once woman, for instance, states sadly “She looks closed off and fatter. Sadder too.” in reference to her “ugly” portrait. As a viewer, this statement implies to me that being “fatter” will equate to sadness, and it was being “fatter” that made the “ugly” portrait “ugly.” More poignant is another woman’s personal revelation that she “should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices in friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” This powerfully sums up Dove’s underlying theme : That physical beauty IS critical to our happiness, it is critical to us having friends, where we work, and even, according to Dove, that if we are less than attractive we might not be ideal mothers.

It is also interesting to note that the women featured in Dove’s commercial are not unattractive by western standards. While these women are not quite super models, they are still averagely attractive women, one of which is even thin, blond and blue eyed. All of the models featured in the advertisement are well dressed and nicely groomed. Dove’s advertisement does not feature, for example, women who are largely obese, or suffering from acne. Dove does not feature elderly women, or middle age women who are perhaps not aging as gracefully as their peers. The women featured in Dove’s advertisement were, most likely, not picked at random, but rather selected from many. The women Dove’s omission of less physically attractive women further propagates this notion of an ideal beauty. Had Dove showcased less attractive women perhaps their campaign would have come across as more selfless and altruistic.

Overall I felt that Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” advertisement campaign was extremely successful at what it set out to accomplish. It managed to subtly, stealthily if you will , feed into women’s insecurities about themselves all while appearing altruistic. On its surface, Dove’s advertisement comes across as overwhelmingly positive, and perhaps for some women it will be nothing but. However, as someone who suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, I can not help but feel that Dove’s advertisement is just as damaging to a women’s self esteem and body image as their more conventional counterparts. Dove’s advertisement does not tell women they are beautiful just as they are, but rather that women are closer to a western ideal of beauty than they previously thought, and they should strive for more. Beauty is after all, according to Dove, “critical to your happiness.”