The Beauty and the Ugliness of Advertising?

Curator's Note

This ad confuses me. On one level, it’s a fantastic illustration of how the process of making a model “beautiful” works, and is a brilliant teaching tool, in or out of the classroom, with or without a teacher. On another level, though, it “just” represents Dove’s attempt to brand itself as the lone socially responsible corporation out there, and, for all its well-meaning, commodifies social responsibility, using it as another ad might use Che to sell hot pockets. How do we balance the ad’s two (or various) sides off against each other? Or put another way, while as media analysts, we nearly always simply subjugate all meanings, roles, and activities of advertising to its intent to sell, might this ad suggest a need to engage more seriously with all those other meanings, roles, and activities? Or is it just business as usual?


A student of mine wrote her senior thesis last year on the Dove campaign (this part, as well as the "real bodies" part), arguing quite compellingly that while Dove is (on the positive side) working to undermine the artificial standards of beauty that have taken over much of western culture, they're nonetheless doing so by superimposing another form of consumerist-driven self-image, much as Sprite's anti-advertising ad campaign got to have it both ways -- pay no attention to all those other companies who are using the media to manipulate you; we can see through them, and therefore you ought to buy our product! My student also focused on the irony in the Dove campaign that, on the one hand, the company attempted to resituate beauty as something that's not skin-deep, while at the very same moment selling products that work on the skin...

Well said Kathleen! I've always found the way that Dove sells its own constructed "beauty" products under the guise of "naturalness" bothersome. The fact of the matter is that even though the company may use natural ingredients Dove soap does not grow on trees. The campaign opens a discourse regarding the meaning of natural, which is in many respects similar to Terry Eagleton's reflections in his book on culture. I tend to believe that culture is no more natural than Dove products. Having cynically stated that, I agree with Jonathan that this is a wonderful ad worthy of classroom discussion. As a matter fact, I think I just planned today's lesson!

Yeah, I posted this, since I feel that as media scholars, we're often quick to try and find a correct meaning (or even "a preferred meaning") and a correct way of seeing a text's politics, yet I'm more a believer in texts having multiple meanings at the same time, some progressive, some deeply regressive, often even regarding the same issue. This ad encapsulates that for me

There are three things that are striking to me on this ad: One is the crude docility that the woman must embody to become this other creature. Two, the clip highlights the body as a site for labor. Three, the product of labor, "the creature" becomes the alienated form of human labor and docility. Marxouch!!

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