There is an ad Dove created that is making its way around the internet. The ad goes something like this: Dove did a social “experiment” in which the participants did not know what was going to happen. The female participants first spent time talking about their appearance and what they would change. They then spent a few minutes talking to someone they’d never met before. After this, they went to a sketch artist and talked about how they looked and so did the person they had talked to. The result is that: oh my god, the strangers described the women as prettier than they described themselves. Now this ad is being posted on facebook by tons of women saying “Oh my god, we’re so negative! We should be better!”
Flaws in the Methodology of Dove’s Experiment
There are some huge problems with this experiment. The methodology and the reporting is skewed and off.
1) There are two different experiments happening here. Having the women talk about what they dislike and what they would like to improve about their looks at the beginning of the experiment puts those thoughts into their mind. A few minutes later when they are asked to describe themselves, they are going to have the thoughts about where they could improve fresh in their mind. Doing this first is dishonest. You are now conducting two experiments: one on the impact of being told to focus on something before being questioned and the other was the point Dove was actually trying to make (more on that later).
2) People look at themselves up close in a mirror. Strangers will generally not get closer than three feet away, if even that close. Of course the strangers are not going to see the small crows feet or a few freckles. The strangers are also interacting with the people they are meeting. They aren’t seeing the person when their face isn’t expressive. And, being strangers, they may be getting gentler, more open, more friendly looks than one would give themselves in the mirror first thing in the morning.
3) All of the women were wearing makeup. Application of makeup will tend to distort features. Mascara and eyeliner will make the eyes more prominent while making the crows feet and dark coloration less noticeable. Blush and bronzer contouring (I noticed the contouring) will make a rounder face look thinner. Lipstick will make lips look thicker. So, yet again, it is not surprising that a stranger would not see the roundness described by the participants nor the darker circles since the makeup is focusing their attention somewhere else.
4) There was a friendly conversation before the sketches. If you listen to the descriptions the strangers give, they were all trying to be friendly. “She had nice eyes. They lit up when she spoke and were very expressive.” This is describing someone you had a nice conversation with. What if they got to see the way the participants looked at themselves in the mirror? Would they describe them differently? They’ve just had a pleasant talk with someone - of course they are going to describe them and their features as “nice”.
5) The results shown are skewed. The only thing the ad showed was women who appeared to have a dramatically different view of themselves from the person they interacted with. Is it possible that some had the same view as the person they interacted with? They also showed conversations with exclusively white women, most of them blonde. There were a few quick camera shots of non-white women but they weren’t interviewed. Maybe white blond women have different views of themselves than other social groups.
6) This is not a proper experiment.The ad sets up conditions that people learn in school are necessary for scientific experiments. Especially notable is the sketch artist being unable to see people. This makes it look like a valid experiment but there aren’t any findings. Further, their conclusions are completely subjective. I will get further into the judgements about women and their beauty in the next section but will say this here: how can you quantify the results while not clearly defining what is considered a negative train and what is considered a positive trait?
So, that long list is the flaws of the “experiment.” This was a pretty dishonest experiment and seemed designed to get the result they expected. Now, I want to cover the judgments the ad made.
Judgments Made in the Dove Ad
1) Old is bad. The women who described starting to get crows feet and getting freckles as they get older are seen as if they are talking about a negative trait. The woman who said she was getting freckles as she got older didn’t look like she was saying anything negative. It seemed an observation on a change. A few years ago, she wouldn’t have said freckles but now she was noticing freckles.
2) Round is bad. Oh, the amount of times these women’s faces were described as thin. “Nice, thin face”, etc. The women who described their face shapes said round where the strangers said thin. The women saying round are not saying fat. They are using round as a descriptor that may or may not be a judgement. But we are led to believe that saying round is a negative judgement.
3) Imperfections are bad. The sketch artist in the ad says “the women were really critical about moles or scars or things like that and yet they were describing just a normal, beautiful person.” Heaven forbid you have a mole on your face. Moles can’t be cute. If you don’t have or notice them you are a normal person.
Why Dove’s Ad is Harmful to Women
So, why do I care? I think there are some things in this ad that are harmful to women that should be pointed out and addressed.
1) This is not natural beauty. Women are being told they are beautiful just the way they are. Yet, the women in the ad were wearing makeup. That is not natural beauty. That is not “you are more beautiful than you think.” The women are also pretty similar looking - all thin, all white, mostly blonde. Really what the ad is saying is “if you’re a thin, blonde, white woman who wears makeup, you are more beautiful than you think.”
2) Blame for esteem is placed on women. Women are being told they judge themselves more harshly. However, the flaws in their experiment not only led these women to focus on what they would change about themselves before meeting the sketch artist, it also characterized some very natural traits as negative. This ad perpetuates what the “ideal” form of beauty is and then tells women that if they feel bad about not fitting the ideal, it’s their own damn fault. One of the women in the ad says, “I have some work to do on myself,” assigning blame to herself for seeing herself differently instead of understanding what happened in this "experiment".
3) Too much importance is put on looks. In the ad, a woman says, “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.” The ad is telling women how they feel about how they look is critical to their happiness and it impacts everything. Women have to feel good about the way they look to be happy and successful, yet see point two above: it’s all their fault they feel this way.
Conclusions to Draw from this Ad
Women aren’t supposed to be happy unless they feel pretty. Being awesome at your job isn’t good enough. Being smart or strong isn’t good enough. Pride in your children is not enough. Loving and feeling loved is not enough. According to Dove, you can’t be happy unless you feel pretty and you’re broken if you don’t think you’re pretty.
I get it, though. Dove is trying to sell you stuff. They aren’t selling beauty products, just soap. They can vilify beauty products by telling women they don’t need them. The way they are saying it just kinda sucks. And it really isn’t their fault that it sucks. We have this ideal beauty out there and there is no way an ad campaign is going to go against that. Look at the crap the GoDaddy super bowl ad got over a “pretty” woman kissing an “ugly” man. What company would want to get that kind of crap?
But it isn’t women’s fault either. Dove could have done a much better job with this campaign. Instead, we’re left with a bunch of negative judgements about naturally occurring traits and the wrong message to women. We can do better and we should do better.
As Mister Roger’s said, “I like you just the way you are.” Your value and your worth is yours to determine, no one else’s, not Dove’s and especially not advertisements. Please think about this before throwing that ad up on Facebook with an “OMG we women SUCK” and before feeling like you must be broken. And remember, I like you just the way you are.