by Virginia Postrel • Feb 12, 2007 at 10:13 pm
My latest Atlantic column is the result of seeing one too many Dove commercials suggesting that every woman is beautiful (provided she uses the right thigh cream, of course) and that any teenage girl who has doubts about her gorgeousness suffers from low self-esteem. (Link is good for three days.)
I'm sure the article will enrage many readers, since lots of people seem to believe that recognizing the excellence of others requires denigrating oneself. But it shouldn't be any more offensive to say some people are more beautiful than others than to say that some people are taller, or smarter, or more agile than others. The genetic lottery isn't fair, and the truly beautiful are genetic freaks. Nor do I see how pretending that everyone is beautiful or, worse, that beauty is the same as personality or character or goodness makes for more happiness. You certainly won't fool teenagers with the former lie--they take their cues from each other, not Oprah--while the latter one is likely to backfire, giving undue moral weight to physical appearance: "If you really had a nice personality, people would think you're beautiful. If they don't think you're beautiful, there must be something wrong with the inner you."
Dove has gotten a lot of positive press from (Miss Black Tennessee 1971) Oprah Winfrey's enthusiastic endorsement of its campaign. What you rarely hear is that Dove is paying for that support. In a WSJ interview published October 5, 2005 (online only if you pay for it separately), Silvia Lagnado, who was then Unilever's global brand director for Dove, said, "Just last week, we started a relationship with Oprah. We are sponsoring her show. She mentioned the Dove products on the show and had the women in our ads in their underwear on the show." (Emphasis added.) I'm sure Oprah really does like the ads, but I doubt that the "Dove girls" would be on the show without Unilever's advertising checks. Dove also just happened to choose Oprah's best friend, Gayle King, to receive the first Dove Real Beauty Award.
And how effective are the ads at actually moving Dove products? Here's a bit of business reporting that wound up on The Atlantic's cutting room floor:
New products probably had more to do with growing sales than did high-profile advertising.
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