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A company's ugly contradiction


By Michelle Gillett

Boston Globe
November 5, 2007


IT ONLY lasts a minute, but "Onslaught," a video released last month on Unilever's "Dove Campaign for Real Beauty" website, is powerful and disturbing. A little girl looks directly into the camera. She has red hair and blue eyes and looks as pure as the bar of Dove soap I wash with every day.

As the soundtrack plays "Here It Comes," the camera cuts to a rapid succession of images she and all of us are bombarded with daily: model-thin women in underwear; women with unnatural curves; women weighing themselves; women shrinking and expanding as they diet and purge and nip and tuck; body parts scored with black marker indicating where they will be carved for cosmetic surgery; needles being plunged into skin to plump and smooth it; food portions, large and small; women being told how to become "younger, taller, lighter, firmer, thinner, softer."

For the past three years, Dove's ad campaign has professed the company's commitment to making real changes in the ways women and girls perceive and embrace beauty. Unilever's videos, including "Real Women, Real Curves" and the award-winning "Evolution," which shows how technology and makeup can transform a plain Jane into a billboard babe, all counter the beauty industry's stereotype of physical perfection.

But the launching of "Onslaught," the most recent of Unilever's efforts to foster self-esteem, has also launched a controversy about the sincerity of its commitment to "real beauty." The video has been posted on popular Internet sites like YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 750,000 times.

Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads exhort boys to make "nice girls naughty" and assure them, "the more you spray, the more you get" in the Axe deodorant body spray ads. The female models in those ads do not come in a variety of shapes and sizes like the ones in the Real Beauty ads. Axe is promoted by the Bom Chicka Wah Wahs, a fictional all-female singing group dressed in lingerie, fish net stockings, and stilettos, whose lyrics suggest, "If you have that aroma on, you can have our whole band."

At the end of "Onslaught," we watch the little red-haired girl and her friends continue on their way to school. Then, across a black screen, appear the words, "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does." And after that minute-long onslaught of images, we do feel compelled to change the world into an ideal place where we can convince our daughters of the merits of inner over outer beauty. But in the all-too-real world, parental talk is cheap compared with the millions spent by companies like Unilever on coining weasel words like "Real Beauty," and on videos like "The Bom Chicka Wah Wahs."

Unilever spends $809 million a year on advertising. Unilever spokeswoman Anita Larson describes the Axe ad campaign as a spoof "not meant to be taken literally."

"Unilever is a large global company with many brands in our portfolio," she said. "Each brand effort is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience."

In other words, Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems and how much we want to believe its message.

Unilever's "Onslaught" video is right: there is a moral problem in ads that target girls at younger and younger ages and that, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, can lead them to anorexia and bulimia at very young ages. Fifty percent of ads in teen magazines and 56 percent of television commercials use beauty as a product appeal. Children and adolescents are the viewers most affected by these ads.

But if Unilever wants us to buy its concern for girls' self-esteem, it has to do more than shift the burden of its efforts to parents. It's nice to think that if we talk about the damaging effect of diet and beauty ads, our daughters might listen to us. But we know the siren call of beauty product marketing will fill their ears sooner than later.

Individuals and consumer groups like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are insisting that if Unilever means business about changing the industry's message, it will "ax the Axe campaign," and come clean about changing the stereotype of beauty.


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