Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reality, sentiment, and savvy [Updated]

A while back, Grim posted and Cassandra linked to the Dove “Real Beauty” video that went viral. I watched the video, thought it was lovely, and wanted to send it along to a couple of (female) friends. Since those friends would probably fall down in a dead faint if exposed to the poem in Grim’s sidebar, I went looking for another source. When I did, I was amazed and kind of appalled at some of the reactions. There was a lot of hilarity, a lot of scorn, a lot of trashing of Dove’s parent company, and so on. I was taken aback and ended up not sending my friends a link to the video. I didn’t however, give the reactions serious thought until I read what Ace had to say about the ad:

Dove did an ad, intended to go viral, putting across the message "Hey Ladies, you're more beautiful than you think."

Now, think about this. Dove does not know any of these 30 million women. So Dove could not possibly say if these women are more beautiful than they believe themselves to be.
It's the equivalent of telling ten thousand randomly-drawn strangers: Remember, you're all above average in skating ability.


And yet, thirty million views. Women are starved for this sort of positive messaging, even when, if you think about if for five seconds, 1, it doesn't make any sense that Dove could tell you this about yourself and 2, Dove is obviously a corporation attempting to get attention by peddling an embarrassingly-transparently cloying-ingratiating message to women in hopes they're so starved for a kind word they'll take it anyway.

In the same post, Ace linked to an essay on the ad by Virginia Postrel and I read that, too. After reading both of these, I began to wonder if I had watched the same ad. Here are the two things I think are going on.

First, Ace’s interpretation isn’t quite right. Dove isn’t telling women they’re above average in appearance; Dove is saying that women are more attractive than they give themselves credit for. It’s not like telling 10,000 random strangers that they’re above average in skating ability; it’s like telling 10,000 random strangers that they’re better skaters than they give themselves credit for.

Now, with skating ability there’s no reason to think that most people will underestimate (or overestimate) their skating ability. There is, however, good reason to think that most women underestimate their attractiveness. As Naomi Wolf points out in The Beauty Myth, advertisers usually sell to women by leveraging - or helping create - women’s unrealistically bad opinion of themselves:

The advertisers who make women’s mass culture possible depend on making women feel bad enough about their faces and bodies to spend more money on worthless or pain-inducing products than they would if they felt innately beautiful. (p. 84)

Dove is simply talking explicitly about the basis of most advertising to women: women focus on their flaws and that makes them easy prey. So, yes, it does make sense that Dove can tell us that about ourselves - as, I think, Ace’s comment that “[w]omen are starved for this kind of positive messaging” makes clear.

Similarly, there is Postrel’s statement that:

There are many reasons to choose some women and not others for the video, ranging from how well they speak to whether they were available for the big reveal. But it’s hard to imagine that the director didn’t try to make the most compelling movie possible, choosing the sketches that showed drastic contrasts. Few, if any, viewers realize they’re seeing only about a third of the subjects of the “social experiment.”

The point of the ad is not to sell women a particular idea of reality; it’s to evoke recognition. Most women know that their friends and loved ones see them as more attractive than they see themselves. The ad isn’t telling us that as if it’s a banner headline; the ad is simply talking about something we all know anyhow - and gently pointing out that it isn’t a very realistic way to go through life.

Postrel also says:

But the campaign also encourages the perception that it’s normal, if undesirable, for grown women to obsess about their imperfections.

My reading on this is very different. I think the ad recognizes that this is something grown women do; in other words, this is a normal (in the sense of “usual” or “commonplace”) activity. That’s very different from “encouraging the perception that it’s normal”. Again, the ad is not trying to create a reality; it is reporting on the reality that already exists.

The second thing I think is going on in much of the negative reaction to the Dove ad is a rejection of sentiment. That is, when something moves us, we look for a reason to short-circuit that emotion. Hence, Ace’s point 2, about Dove being a corporation, looking for attention, etc. And hence Postrel’s references to the ad’s cleverness, and her warnings about it being “highly selective” and about how the artist didn’t work as sketch artists usually do. These are ways of saying, “There we go. No reason to be moved after all. It’s all a trick.”

Yet, again, we are not moved to tears because the ad convinces us of something. We are moved to tears because of recognition of something we already know: we women are awfully hard on ourselves. What is wrong with feeling touched and relieved that someone is talking to us about that - even if that someone is a huge corporation trying to sell us something?

Perhaps the problem with being moved by an advertisement is the fear that we will not be able to interrupt the connection between being moved and buying the product. Thus, rather than say, “Great ad, doesn’t make me want to rush right out and buy Dove” we feel we have to say, “Bad ad” to stop ourselves from immediately maxing out our credit cards on bars of soap with one-quarter cleansing cream. It’s as if we are all terrified that our emotions will be used against us. Perhaps that’s what Postrel fears when she says:

However media-savvy we may be, we tend to believe that a “documentary” reflects reality -- even if it’s quite obviously an ad.

I think women are smarter than that. My own reaction, for example, is, “Great ad. Doesn’t make me want to rush right out and buy Dove. But when I do want to buy something and my choice is between a version made by Dove and a version made by someone else, I’ll choose the one made by Dove.”

It seems pretty savvy to me to prefer a product made by a company that’s trying to sell me by telling me I’m fine the way I am over a product made by a company telling me there’s something seriously wrong with me that only its product can fix.



Cassandra is writing along somewhat similar lines and is doing her usual outstanding job. A must-read - although I’m afraid my post may fall into her “overthinking” category.
[Update: Do definitely read the comments to Cassandra's post. As of 11:45am on May 1, the commenters there seem remarkably media-savvy.]

No comments: