Afternoon InquisitionFeminismSkepticism

AI: Dove Beauty Sketches

It’s Thursday and I am happy to bring you this week’s AI. Today, we are going to talk about advertising and in particular a Dove Soap commercial that has gone viral.

Watch my video for more:

Here is the Dove Soap Commercial called “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” so you can decide for yourself.

My initial impression and why I liked the commercial was that I assumed almost every normal person perceives themselves as uglier than they actually are. Men included. I thought that the commercial did a lovely job of illustrating that universal feeling. Upon initial viewing I didn’t think that all of the women used in the commercial were your average TV beauty standard which was nice- though upon second viewing I had to admit most really were. They were primarily thin and young and white. Still, my first impression was that they seemed identifiable (to me) and sort-of diverse. Although again, upon second glance the key players were primarily white women.

My world-view that probably shaped my initial judgement of the commercial is that I happen to think that there is beauty in (almost) everyone regardless of the ideals set by society- but I have trained myself to look at people that way as it helps me as an artist and as a decent human being. I think a lot of people forget that, or never know how to see that underlying beauty to begin with. It’s not about freckles or weight or wrinkles though we have been absolutely conditioned to think that it is. We are taught from a very young age to be very critical of our looks as women. We are taught to compare ourselves to others. We are taught to be pretty and quiet. We are also taught to compare ourselves to other women and to unattainable “ideals” like Barbie dolls and that’s BS that we can’t help but to internalize and no one is exempt from it. It shapes our views even if someone like me tells herself she is trying NOT to be influenced by it. It’s part of why it’s plausible that women would report that their features were distorted or they would be fixated on the negative aspects of their features. It’s also not considered polite to brag about how great you think you are.

Then there is the question as to how much of the commercial was staged and edited. Who decided what was a beautiful drawing? The producer? The artist? But staged or not, I still liked the (I assume) intended message that others tend to see the good in you and you are more beautiful than you think. It’s a warm and fuzzy idea that will probably sell a lot of soap.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. What is considered attractive is all a mental and social construct. All you have to do is look at art history to see how what was considered the ideals in beauty, fashion and the human form has changed over time as different social ideas were popularized and disseminated to the culture at large. I enjoyed the part of the commercial said, what you see isn’t necessarily what others see and there is more beauty in each of us than we sometimes acknowledge. HOWEVER, as I have mentioned, on a second and third look at the commercial I noticed a WHOLE LOT OF of body shaming sprinkled with agism that we could do much better without. “Fat” is considered negative as is freckles. WTF? Freckles are adorable. Wrinkles are considered “ugly” which only is a shaming point it seems for women. Wrinkles on a man are distinguished. Wrinkles on me should be fixed. I call bullshit.

SO what do YOU think? Was this commercial sending a positive message or was it just another manipulative use of the mental state of women in general and more body shaming? Was the message feel good about yourself cuz you are more beautiful than you know or shut-up and be traditionally good-looking cuz society says so? Was it, hey YOU, you better start convincing yourself that you are beautiful because EVERYONE is judging that beauty and it’s what makes you valuable as a woman and even though you are raised to be humble and not braggy about your good points you just never know when some forensic artist might sit your ass down in a warehouse and start drawing you and so you better describe yourself in a way that is in line with society’s standard of beauty OR you will be shamed for having low self-esteem?! Also? WASH YOURSELF.

Here is a link to Dove’s official page about this advertising campaign complete with the artist’s sketches:

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. The whole Dove Beauty campaign is bulllllshit and it really bothers me how many people seem to like it. IT IS TERRIBLE!

    1. Marilove, off topic but I was hoping to get some advise from you. My mother passed this past weekend and I’m in Mesa cleaning out her apartment. She had alot of nice blouses, and I was wondering if you knew a good local womens shelter I could send them to.

      Note: I posted this question in a previous blog but now can’t get it to open, whether because of a problem with Skepchick or my cursed internet connection I don’t know.

      1. I don’t know of any off hand, but I can certainly locate some! My twin sister works for a shelter in Yuma, so I’ll ask her (she has tons of resources). I’ll have to get back to you tomorrow — I’m just about heading out and won’t be home for a while. Send me a facebook msg if you can, – if not give me a good place to contact you :)

        1. oh and you can just email me at marilee . cornelius @ gmail . com … not sure why i even bother not sharing that, everyone knows my first and last name anyway :P

  2. I thought this summed it all up pretty well:

    “Ps: Dove Marketing team is brilliant and talented, I will give them that, but they have also made some stopovers in Sketchsville… while they have done some cool things, like reminding us about how Photoshop distorts our image of beauty, they have also been accused of using photoshop themselves. They are also a little bit manipulative in their pleas to others to stop manipulating. Sometimes, they seem like they might be more than a little bit racist… and more than a lot bit racist (Skin bleaching? Really?!) And for all of their talk of “real beauty” and empowering women to be their best selves, Dove is owned by Unilever, which also own AXE, which is widely known for having some of the most blatantly sexist and objectifying commercials out there. See Hank Green’s video on the hypocrisy of major corporations here. ”

    1. I think “a little bit manipulative” is putting it mildly. It is an ad campaign! The whole purpose is to be manipulating! :P

  3. I’m really quite fed up with companies insisting that women need to look or feel beautiful (and buy their products) to be worthy. And in all this fawning over Dove, nobody stops to think that Dove soap is comprised primarily of animal fats…fats that come from the slaughtered bodies of sentient beings. Then that soap is tested on other animals. The company is unethical to its very core and I’m unimpressed.

    1. Sorry to get off-subject, but I don’t get why animal testing is unethical. Full disclosure – I am in the medical device field and we do animal testing because we have to. Animal tests are very expensive, so trust me, if we didn’t have to do them we wouldn’t. In all of the labs I have been to the animals have been treated very humanely.

      I would say if they are required to do animal testing, your beef should be with the regulators.

      1. You are in the medical device field, though.

        While I don’t have problem with some required animal testing for good reason, I’m not sure body wash is good reason.

        I would say if someone is going to do animal testing, it should be something more important than deodorant.

      2. And I think the fact that you HAVE to is a good point as well. Plenty of beauty products aren’t tested on animals. It is not necessary.

          1. Well, I could add it to my stinky bar of compressed animal fat collection…

        1. Good point, thanks.
          I still don’t get why they do it if they don’t have to, but I don’t get a lot of the beauty industry anyway.

          1. Well… they don’t *have* to, but they have to if they are using new ingredients, and potentially if they are using new formulations. This is mostly because animal testing is the established way to go down the showing safety path.

            If you are against animal testing, you should be funding the research for alternatives, not yelling at businesses. As pascale mentioned, animal testing is not cheap. You could save the animals and make some serious coin by developing alternative safety methods.


          2. Thanks for the info, Elizabeth. I suppose it makes sense that they may “have” to but at the same time, do we really need any more beauty products?

    2. “nobody stops to think that Dove soap is comprised primarily of animal fats”

      I’m not sure why you think people will be surprised by soap makers using tallow. It’s a very very common ingredient in bar soap and has been since the invention of soap. It is of course worth paying attention to if you are vegetarian or vegan, but if you’re a meat eater it’s no less ethical than eating meat.

      1. Yup. It’s the animal testing that I take issue with, because it’s not fucking necessary for beauty products.

      2. To be fair to Corey Lee though, soaps can be made from a variety of vegetable oils as well, including olive oil and palm oil, so it seems fair enough to insist on proper labelling so that those who wish to do so can at least avoid soaps made from animal fat.

      3. True, but this did make me think. I can choose to eat free range or pastured humanely reared animals, because I have the money and access to growers market. But I can’t choose humanely sourced tallow in big brand soaps, and I hadn’t really thought of that. So thanks for the reminder. I do mostly buy plant oil soaps, but I’ll be that one step more cautious now. (PS avoid palm oil too, unless ethically sourced!)

    3. I don’t have much to add to the conversation about animal testing. All I want to say is that I am most likely a Dove customer for life. I struggled for years with itchy and blotchy skin. It was uncomfortable to shower and I spent the whole day picking at myself and then feeling self conscious for it. Finally a dermatologist said he would write me a scrip, but first he wanted me to go home and try Dove. I never went back for the scrip because after a week of using Dove soap my skin cleared up and my problems have never returned.

      Does the world need more beauty products? Probably not. But Dove made me comfortable in my own skin for the first time in years and I am thankful for that even if their advertising is sleazy and insulting (and this isn’t even the worst example in my opinion).

  4. I thought that Dove video was awful. I couldn’t see what was so wrong about looking like the pictures on the left (how the women described themselves).
    And yes, all commercials are meant to be manipulative, but I find it particularly disgusting that Dove is on their high horse acting like they are saying something important.

  5. It’s an ad so essentially it’s a lie. I’ve worked on a lot of commercials in my day and they are hands down lies.

    But I really was forced to notice something. This guy is a forensic illustrator, all he does is draw criminals and victims. That’s creepy if you ask me, no wonder the original portraits looked sad. But I also have to wonder about the people who described the women to the artist. That’s where the con is. All they had to do was describe them in really positive terms and their portrait would turn out better.

    As for the notion that the women they used were just regular women. Yeah, regular women they regularly use for commercials. That’s what they look like before 45 min of make up.

    I’m really disturbed that a commercial is being looked at as a valid social experiment with honest lessons for us. It’s like getting nutritional information from a Carl’s Jr.

  6. You are just being skeptical Amy.

    After all what is more important than superficial appearance that we have little to nothing to say about…

    Isn’t a good thing to make people feel self conscience about things that happen normally and natural in order to judge people not be the content of their character but but the appearance of their skin and body.

    That last line reminds me of something… hmmmmmmm

  7. Another thing that seems to be passed by here… the *women* being described.
    Now, I realize that this is a commercial primarily directed at women, but they went to the effort of showing a few men.. yet they aren’t allowed to show that they have just as screwed up and defamatory self-images as well? Huh.

    I suspect the two pictures as well. They reminded me too much of those classic “before and after” pictures, where the before is flatly lit, the hair isn’t done, and they are frowning, and usually over a dull background. The after pictures also (of course) very closely resemble the people they are describing. For someone who had never seen them, but was going just off people’s descriptions… that’s rather amazing.

    1. It’s a new era in movie-length, theatrical tear-jerker, viral, web-commercials. Let’s call them JerkWebMercials.

  8. I watched this online the day before the news picked it up. First of all I would like to say I have enjoyed your blogging; and think you are doing well to bring much that is overlooked to peoples attention. It is certainly needed.
    Regarding this particular ad, you are yourself practicing an ism right away. {““Fat” is considered negative as is freckles. WTF? Freckles are adorable.”}. Ok, you are human and just as swayed by societies fat=ugly, etc. influences.
    I also think you may be reading into this commercial prejudices that are not there. There were technically more white women in the ad. Statistically there are more whites in the US then other races; and this was aired in the US. Demographics are part of selling and idea as well as product. There was also an African American woman and man, a white man and for the review of the sketches an Asian woman (we just did not see her in the chair being sketched). The ages seemed to range from 20 to 40s. One women even stated her age of 40. So, yes some ageism. Or perhaps it is more accurate to think that once a woman reaches a certain age she has had enough life experiences to have learned to be comfortable in her skin. And Dove may have asked older women and they just were either not interested or had learned to more accurately see themselves. So, not good footage for the commercial. Again, they are still trying to sell a product. Combining a product and attempting to make social change is very difficult.
    Perhaps Dove amassed a large number of sketches to create this commercial. If so, I am sure for a visual media they selected the drawings that illustrated the most dramatic differences. It is a visual media. But I am also certain that all who participated saw a huge difference in how they were drawn as per their self description verses someone else’s. The message in the ad is accurate. We are all guilty of viewing/criticizing ourselves more harshly than others do. But many of the collected sketches may not have been dramatic enough to convey the desired message. So, they picked the ones that were. It would be nice if Dove put together a behind the scenes video perhaps showing all the drawings done to get this commercial together.
    Thank you for your work and efforts. And thank you for this forum to express my opinion. And thank you for asking if we agree with your assessment of the ad.

    1. You do realize that this wasn’t a real experiment and that the women in it were actors, don’t you?

  9. Too bad they didn’t have any footage of someone saying, I am hot. I have a fantastic smile and light in my eyes. Or just lying, for instance I am six two with blond hair. Or going for the punch, I look a bit like an ape. These commercials are meant for a targeted audience, one that already believes in the message they are sending. I saw that commercial, that is what is was, not an experiment. There seems to be this question of beauty or self perception. These women were asked to describe themselves physically. Not what are their hobbies, chosen professions, their passions in life, etc… Maybe these women don’t go around contemplating their looks. I might describe myself as having a scowl after sitting in a chair for an hour while playing at some dumb exercise, self-esteem fully intact. I don’t think I focus on my appearance nearly as much as I do at my education or the effort that goes into my family life. My self perception goes beyond the physical. BUT I would have never been asked to be in this commercial and I don’t own any of their soap, not for philosophical reason, just they aren’t the cheapest, it is just soap. I guess what I am saying, the commercial is a set up and it all stinks of faky-fake.

  10. My first impression was positive, but like most of these beauty campaigns when you look deeper it still has that hint of shaming.
    Though I have to say when I was in high school I would do self portraits and they never came out right. Then one day I decided to look at my reflection like it was another person and I came away with a much better likeness. I do agree with the message that sometimes how you see yourself isn’t entirely accurate, or as flattering as someone else might see you.

  11. Amy, like you I liked the ad initially, but then began to have doubts the more I thought about it. For me, most of those thoughts were that it was a poorly controlled experiment combined with a dubious feminist message. I pointed out some of the basic science issues on another thread, so I won’t go into them here. But, as progressive and self-empowering the message is supposed to sound, it’s still just an ad. The self empowering “you’re more beautiful than you think” is flattery designed to sell soap. People love to be told that they are better than they think they are, because sometimes we need reminding. Now, you’re supposed to go buy Dove soap because they’re on your side and think you’re pretty, not like those other cosmetics companies that keep telling you how ugly you are. Is there a feminist message there? Kind of, it’s just not as good as if they told women not to rate their self worth by how closely they meet arbitrary beauty standards. So, is it better because it’s more positive than the usual, or is it just the same, negative message delivered in a more insidious manner, thereby making it worse? I’m going to go with better. Not a lot better, but still better.

  12. Personally there were two things that interested me. As a cynic I pretty much discounted the message of the commercial. Way too easy to manipulate the experiment, although I doubt they bothered. Even if they hid the intent of the experiment from the artist until the first day that he interviewed a subject’s acquaintance instead of the subject herself, he would start to suspect as soon as they brought in the woman’s husband or daughter or whatever.

    The first thing that occurred to me is that you really don’t get a good close-up of the pictures and the women’s faces all together. I was curious which of the two approaches actually resembled the woman more. Of course I suspected that the second picture would, but that made me think even harder because one of the things that I have noticed when other people have drawn me is that it still looks like me, with all of my imperfections and flaws, sometimes highlighted (and at least once because what I think of as a flaw, the artist thought was cute). Looking at these pictures, the subjects must have seen the differences. But I wonder if they actually saw themselves in either picture at all. A few of them looked almost nothing like the subject, in my opinion.

    The other thing that was interesting was that the subjects used very physical language to describe themselves, such as “fat,” “jutting,” and “large.” However, the subjects’ acquaintance used emotional words like “open,” “inviting,” and “friendly.” I would not be able to tell another person if my eyes are friendly or unfriendly, but I suspect that a decent artist would be able to convey that emotion in a proper portrait of me. I wonder if this additional access to the emotional inferences of subjects’ acquaintances was what made the second set of pictures look so much more alive, and therefore more attractive.

  13. It’s very “la-de-da” pretty but they’re still injecting those subtle hints of insecurity that only “Dove” can cure. David Copperfield is probably green with envy over the misdirection this ad uses. Advertising is based on making you feel insecure and lacking. Fear not, the “Glass Teat” will hook you up with the right snake oil, car or electric Whizmo that will make you whole again, at least until the next 60 second spot comes on.

  14. Beauty-schmeauty; when you make a soap that soothes murderous rage and repels swarming toxic commercial messages I might be interested, Dove.

    1. YES COTW! izilari send me your shipping address through the contact link on the top of the page, Put ATTENTION SURLY AMY and I will send you soap and a surprise!

  15. The message of this commercial seems to be, “How others see you is more important than your self-image,” and no, I don’t find that to be a thoughtful or valuable critique of beauty culture. Maybe my friends think of me as a skinny,statuesque blonde – that doesn’t change the fact that I’m fat, a brunette, and have a lopsided face. That’s not low self-esteem – that’s an objective truth. Can’t I be beautiful because of my droopy eye and lovehandles, not in spite of them?

  16. I really like that ad where the hot woman is being rescued by the hot fireman and then she sees the astronaut and she’s totally so-long-hot-fireman, I need to jump *his* bones.

    Oh, is that not the ad we’re talking about? I get confused. Axe, Dove, it’s all out of the same big stinky Unilever vat.

  17. Ok you guys here is the BEST critique of the commercial yet:

    “You might be surprised to learn that through a child’s innocent eyes, you’re actually a potato with a shock of purple hair, sticks for limbs and a triangular nose that rests somewhere south of where you always imagined your neck to be. You no longer have a neck — didn’t you used to have a neck? — but your arms have never looked thinner! And that triangle nose is so much more dainty than the Cubist mountain perched on the bulbous pumpkin you blindly drew for your own head.”

  18. This “our company cares” crap that comes from corporate America sends me into cardiac arrest (I’ve had 4 triple bypasses already), because they care about your well being like an intestinal parasite cares about what you eat.

    1. “Your business is important to us. All our operators are busy. Beep. You are now 199th on the queue.”
      If this was an attempt by the beauty industry to rehabilitate itself in our eyes, I remain cynical.

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