It’s hard to go a day without someone telling me how beautiful I look. There’s always someone–telling me to love my body, reminding me that I’m strong and I can do anything, imploring me to remember that my insecurity about my appearance is irrational. You’d think that all of this positivity would send my self-confidence through the roof. Maybe it would if it was coming from people I know and love, but it isn’t; it’s coming from commercials.
In the last few years, there has been a sudden influx of positive ads for women. Feminism has moved into the mainstream–or at least, a few feminist buzzwords and some tiny fragments of feminist ideology have moved into the mainstream and have come together to create a superficial version of the movement that secretly doesn’t actually care about making real changes in the world. You know these ads. They’re the ones with soundtracks that tug at your heartstrings and messages that inspire you, the ones you will probably mistake for “empowering” and “feminist” at first glance.
The first ad of this sort that I can remember seeing was a commercial from Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign in which a forensic artist drew two sketches for each of a handful of women. The first sketches were based on women’s descriptions of themselves, and second on women’s descriptions of each other. In the end, we saw that the former sketches were much less conventionally attractive than the latter, and when the women themselves noticed this, they seemed to magically let go of all their past insecurities and begin to love themselves completely.
After that first ad, I felt touched and inspired. I teared up a little when the women realized their negative perceptions of themselves, remembering that I often feel the same way about myself, and wouldn’t it be amazing if I could have a similar breakthrough. Now, however, after seeing many more ads just like that one, my emotional reaction is much different. The affirmations feel less genuine–I’ve already heard them a million times before–and when the encounter is over, I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth.
This particular ad is not a rare breed. “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” was just one video in Dove’s ongoing advertising campaign, and other companies have also hopped on the self-love bandwagon. Covergirl says that #GirlsCan do and be anything they want. Pantene insists that I “shine strong,” and they aren’t just talking about my hair. Always tries to challenge the assumption that “like a girl” means something negative.
These ads almost always make you feel good at first, but the more you see the more you realize that they’re total crap.
Generally, these commercials follow one of two patterns. The first type is high-energy from start to finish, with smiling models or celebrities, upbeat music, and lots of movement and colour. This is the ad that screams faux feminism right into your face; in fact, its title probably includes a feminism buzzword, like “empowerment.” It talks explicitly about female empowerment, but never really explores the complexity of this issue; the women’s outfits perfectly balance femininity and toughness (a black leather jacket is usually involved); there’s often something bright pink to remind you that yes, girl, this is for you.
The second kind of commercial is much more artful and frighteningly subtle. It starts out somber and slow, peaks at the moment where the women realize that oh my gosh they are beautiful, and ends on a borderline cheesy but nonetheless optimistic note. This journey is accompanied by music that rises and falls with the tone of the video and manipulates your emotions so that you rise and fall along with it, too.
No matter which method companies choose, the insincerity of the ads is always apparent, and it’s made most obvious by the casting. Maybe the women are handpicked or maybe they’re just passersby. Either way, most of them more or less fit society’s idea of “beautiful.” Too many of the women featured are lean, light-skinned, cisgender, and able-bodied–society already tells us that women who look like that are beautiful. If anyone needs their beauty affirmed, it’s the women we don’t often see represented in beauty campaigns or in other forms of mainstream media. Larger women, darker-skinned women, women who present as gender nonconforming, women with visible disabilities–it’s these women who don’t perfectly fit contemporary social ideals for what women are “supposed” to look like.
How much do companies really care about helping women realize their beauty if they’re only showing us women who don’t stray uncomfortably far from society’s definition of “beautiful”?
The first question I have when I see a faux feminist ad is, “What in the world does this have to do with your product?” Then I remember who their target market is: women.
When these commercials talk about insecurities or negative stereotypes, they always focus on women. And it makes sense; women are perceived as excessively insecure, especially when it comes to their appearance. The part that all of these videos conveniently neglect to address is where exactly this deep-rooted insecurity comes from. Insecurity doesn’t come from any one place in particular, but it isn’t innate and it is, as is increasingly acknowledged, partly taught and perpetuated by the media–and “the media” includes advertisements.
It’s important to remember who exactly makes these ads. Unilever owns Dove, but it also owns Axe. Procter & Gamble owns Covergirl and Pantene, but it also owns Dolce & Gabbana. Both of those secondary brands are known for having incredibly sexist advertisements. How likely is it that a company that uses a woman as a sexualized prop in one commercial is really being genuine when they try to empower her in another?
The irony of these commercials is that even when they’re trying to be positive and empowering, they’re still telling you how should feel about yourself. Ads used to point out “flaws” and tell you how to fix them. Now, they’re telling you to just get over your insecurity and learn to love yourself. But wait, there’s even more irony. That message of self-love is built on the assumption that you don’t love yourself already, and it’s this assumption that ultimately proves lucrative for the companies producing these ads.
The companies that make faux feminist ads are part of an industry built on women’s insecurity. If you feel inadequate in one way or another, you’re much more likely to spend more money on products that will make you more conventionally attractive. They can shout “feminism” as loud as they want, but at the end of the day, they don’t really mean it.
Feature Image from Huffington Post