Dove’s Latest Darlings

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Surveys show that only 2 percent of American women consider themselves beautiful. Far as I know, there are no surveys indicating the percentage of men who think their special American woman is beautiful, but the percentage is undoubtedly much higher. Sadly, that later percentage is irrelevant to American women, anyway. An astounding 60 percent of American women believe that they are overweight. So now corporations are deciding to cater in their advertising to the average woman, who is size 14 (not the size 0 of most models).

The soap company Dove is taking the lead.

This summer, Dove began marketing a new body lotion with advertising that features six real women, the Dove Darlings, picked out from women walking along city streets. They are ordinary women–a manicurist, kindergarten teacher, two students and two secretaries ranging in age from 20 – 26. Talent scouts scoured various cities looking for such women and paid them to take time off from their work for photo shoots.

These women in Dove’s latest advertising campaign are all featured in their–white, relatively modest, definitely not sexy–underwear on the sides of buses and in full-page magazine spreads. Most of them are sizes 6, 8 and 10; not the 12 and 14 of the average woman in the U.S., but certainly closer than most models in most advertising campaigns. The Dove women have sparked conversations all over the nation: Is this just a publicity stunt or will it begin to change women’s perceptions of what is beautiful? Others are asking if it is fair of Dove to feature “doughnutty” women in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

Clearly, Dove has struck a nerve.

The ad campaign, launched in June, is still generating flak. Everybody has something to say about the women,whether they are an ideal or just plain disgusting. Dove wanted, they said, to provoke discussion and debate. That they did. The whole enterprise has become more than just an ad campaign; it has become a cause celebre. Fleshy thighs and generous hips–real bodies with real curves–are replacing, according to Dove’s Web site, the “narrow, stifling stereotypes” of the past.

But, in the fine print, the real cause celebre is revealed. Dove is selling cellulite-firming cream.

What size 0 model needs cellulite firming cream? And, who believes that cellulite firming cream works anyway!?

And, what’s with a campaign designed to make women feel good about themselves–as they really are–when the purpose of the ad is to sell a product that will, supposedly, make them look better, i.e., thinner, buff and, therefore, beautiful.

Clever advertisers are, once again, preying on women’s greatest fears.

Women look at those larger-than-life billboards and ask, “Do I really look like that?” Instead of broadening the definition of beauty, Dove has actually held those real women up for ridicule. Instead of reinforcing the idea that beauty can come in different sizes, shapes and ages, the ad not-so-subtly communicates the message that there are lots of bodies that need cellulite cream and if the women would just buy Dove’s product they could look like “real” models instead of “real women.”

Some commentators say that by targeting “real” women and using un-retouched photographs, Dove has made their product a brand for “fat girls.” If the ads backfire, Dove can take consolation in the fact that, according to Newsweek, their Web site traffic has increased from 400 hits a day to 4,000. And, their executives say that their share increase has gone up one point per month since the ad came out.

Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow of CWA’s Beverly LaHaye Institute: A Center for Studies in Women’s Issues.

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