Can you remember a time when Dove was just a soap and not a byword for a slightly problematic type of female “empowerment”? That time was pre-2004, before the Unilever product had launched its Real Beauty campaign, aimed to celebrate the diversity of “real” women (whatever that means). If we look to adverts as a mirror for where we are in terms of how society treats women, this was no bad thing. Ten years earlier, in 1994, the era of Oasis and peak lads mags, the biggest campaign of the day was Wonderbra’s Hello Boys ad. Compared with a giant pair of tits on a supermodel, “real” women’s bodies were a breath of fresh air.
But a lot can happen in 12 years and so it has since that groundbreaking-at-the-time Dove campaign. Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project; a couple of guys in San Francisco launched Twitter; Caitlin Moran wrote a book called How To Be A Woman; Lena Dunham wrote a TV show called Girls; we had the first black First Lady; there was the resurfacing of the term "intersectionality" and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement; and slowly, slowly, a ground swell of feminism began, mostly thanks to – and in spite of – the internet. The word was back in fashion. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé both went back on themselves and claimed they were actually feminists after all. It was suddenly cool to care about women’s rights, which was great, because a platform has been given to issues like domestic violence, rape and abortion, as well as conversations around periods, consent and representation. And there has been real change: we’re a stone’s throw from the president of the United States being a woman; coercive control has become a crime; misogyny is being considered hate speech.
Is it really OK that we are asking young girls to tweet a brand message (free of charge) and be the solution to a problem they haven’t caused but are on the sharp end of?
Of course, it hasn’t been the happy ending we’d all hoped for (two words: Donald Trump). Every time women make strides forward, strange little men insist on pushing us backwards. But there’s another cynical by-product of women’s increasing equality – the commodification of it. Much has been written on this: how brands use “empowerment” to flog stuff to women, stuff that isn’t really empowering at all, like washing-up liquid and cars with eyeliner on. It’s frustrating, insulting and transparent.
But it also gets creepy when girls are involved. And so back to Dove, whose latest campaign #speakbeautiful (in partnership with Twitter, that well-known friend to women everywhere) is attempting to get girls to tweet body-positive things about themselves and others.
For starters, it sounds like it’s been conceived by someone who has never been on the internet. Because if you had, you’d know never in a million years to ask your troll to a) tweet “something positive” and b) to use a branded hashtag when he or she is at it.
There are other strange things going on here, too: does Dove really believe that a flutter of positive tweets is the way to deal with a social-media platform's inability to confront the hate speech and bullying that exists? Does Dove really believe that young women just want to skip around, being positive, all the time? (The last time I checked, they’re trying to be cool, they are a bit angry and they don’t take well to being told what to do). And it seems asking girls – and only girls – to sprinkle a fairy dusting of positive thoughts over a shark-infested sea of evil and insanity is offering lambs to the slaughter – all so an agency can claim they’ve made something go “viral”. Is it really OK that we are asking young girls to tweet a brand message (free of charge) and be the solution to a problem they haven’t caused but are on the sharp end of? (I’m going with “no”.)
And there’s something even more cynical when it’s Dove, the creators of the “Real Beauty” ad campaign that was here long before Fairy Liquid rebranded themselves “Fair” for International Women’s Day (no, really, they did). Because, while some brands are still remembering to talk to women, it seems like Unilever has realised they are on to something (and they were with Always’s Like A Girl campaign. That *did* go viral). And now they have found a weak spot in today’s feminism that they can further exploit and sell: the young, vulnerable girls of the internet. And they’ve gone straight for them.
Of course, you might think that any positive message to young women is a good thing in a world of Trump and Kylie Jenner’s lips. And, to be fair, the newest ad seems to be aimed as much at mothers encouraging their daughters to think positively as it is to young women.
But when young women’s vulnerabilities are the back on which a global megabrand sells its soaps – and all in the name of feminism – there’s a serious problem. I just can’t stomach the same industry responsible for offering women and girls impossible ideals of themselves now purporting to be the solution to a problem they have been instrumental in creating.
Is it possible to measure how genuine a company is with its brand message? I know that a lot of Dove’s research involves young women and that they are women in the upper echelons of the corporation. But how many? And will they be still telling girls to #speakbeautiful when Beyoncé changes her mind about being a feminist again?
From Hello Boys to Real Beauty, at least now we’re now heading in the right direction. But Dove’s latest campaign puts the emphasis on young girls to fix the problem that they have been afflicted with – all for the sale of some shower gel.
So bugger #speakbeautiful. Why don’t we just let young women and girls #speakforthemselves?