In Defense of Dove’s “Female-Empowerment” Marketing

The company’s latest #SpeakBeautiful campaign has the haters out in full force. But could their seemingly insincere tactics have a genuine effect?

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If you look into the mirror with nary a hair of disappointment, you’re part of a small minority. If you embrace your body as it is, you’re practically an anomaly.

Most women have hateful thoughts about their bodies daily, studies show, and a scarily large amount report having them 50, 100, or more times per day. And these notions aren’t limited to our thoughts.

Women posted more than 5 million body- and appearance-shaming tweets last year. In response to these findings, Dove teamed with Twitter to create #SpeakBeautiful—a campaign that encourages women to positively change their lingo.

After launching on Oscar Sunday, #SpeakBeautiful became a top-trending hashtag on Twitter. It’s since remained a hot topic, drawing nearly as much controversy and backlash as Patricia Arquette.

In a bashing Washington Post article, reporter Caitlin Dewey calls #Speak Beautiful the “ugliest thing on the internet.” Dove’s only goal, she wrote, is to “lull consumers into a sense of intimacy so human, so convincing, that you forget that Dove is actually trying to sell you something.”

Others argue that Dove’s focus on beauty, even positively slanted, makes matters worse by overvaluing aesthetics, or that minimizing “ugly” tweets is the wrong focus, when words like bitch, slut, rape, and whore run rampant on the web.

Here’s what I think: In a culture in which women have a greater chance of flying to the moon than fully embracing their bodies and appearance, we need more positive messages regarding both. I don’t really care if Dove profits as a result. In fact, perhaps they should.

The Power of Words

A study published in Psychology of Woman Quarterly in March 2011 showed a strong link between “fat talk” and body dissatisfaction, regardless of a woman’s body size, and that speaking negatively about her physique not only reflects body dissatisfaction, but also cultivates it. Research also shows that adolescents whose parents openly discuss physical “flaws” and dieting are at a heightened risk for disordered eating behaviors, such as risky weight loss attempts and binge eating.

In other words, the millions of body-shaming tweets women post likely perpetuate and stimulate more body shame and related complications in girls and women who post and read them. And that’s a problem.

Poor body image contributes to poor academic and work performance, relationship tumult, self-harming behaviors, and significant health conditions, such as depression, unhealthy weight loss and gain, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, and even heart disease. A positive shift in the way we talk about appearance could protect against these risks in myriad ways. Changing our tweets seems like a step in that direction, particularly since social media as a whole isn’t exactly known to improve how females feel about themselves.

What Lies Beneath

It’s nearly impossible for the public to know Dove’s specific motives, and just how genuinely they wish to cultivate positive change.

“Ideas and opinions about body image are now fluidly shared every second through social feeds, and sometimes we do not fully realize the resounding impact of the words in even one post,” said Dove marketing director, Jennifer Bremner. “The power to #SpeakBeautiful is in the hands of us all—we can positively change the way future generations express themselves online.”

Critics of the campaign must deem Bremner insincere. Opposers have also taken issue with the fact that Dove is owned by Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company that oversees controversial products, such as skin-lightening creams, and Axe, a company known for featuring degrading depictions of women in their ads.

Whether the same individual came up with Dove’s real-beauty messages and Axe’s disempowering ads hasn’t been publicized. Considering the companies’ massiveness, it’s doubtful. Even if it were the same person, he or she would be hypocritical, but that wouldn’t make Dove’s mission less important. Assuming that Dove should only affiliate with likeminded brands is ridiculous; how many large corporate conglomerates do you know of with solely empowering messages?

Fixation Vs. Redefinition

One of the most compelling arguments against #SpeakBeautiful comes from Jenny Davis, a sociologist Dewey quoted in her article. On the tech blog Cyborgology, Davis wrote, “In its very name, #SpeakBeautiful centers physical attractiveness as the proper metric with which to measure women’s value. Rather than decenter or reject this metric, it asks women to give one another high scores. Broadening the standards of beauty does nothing to abolish the requirement that women be beautiful.”

Supportive participants of #SpeakBeautiful seem to have another take. “You’re beautiful for being you…because of your heart,” read one popularly favorited and shared user tweet. Dove itself defined beauty as celebrating womanhood on International Women’s Day. Suggesting that use of the word beautiful is hurtful and sexist detracts from what seems to be happening on some level: a redefinition of beauty we could all benefit from.

Profiting Problems

Many have criticized Dove for profiting from women’s insecurities, which they arguably, to some degree, are. But at least they’ve taken a positive, solution-focused approach in the open, rather than deceptively adding fuel to the body-hate fire. What scares me are the “health” magazines that promote risky diet tactics, “bikini body” tutorials, and impossibly thin models under the guise of wellness. The weight-loss industry profited over $60 billion in 2013, which includes countless products that pose significant risks, and rely on partakers’ ongoing insecurities. If anyone should be vilified for taking advantage of women, it’s them. They may even delight in the overabundance of hatred women feel about their bodies as their bank accounts flourish; the more women dislike themselves, the more products they sell.

As for the argument that Dove is brainwashing consumers into forgetting that they sell products, I can’t imagine anyone losing sight of the fact that Dove sells soap and deodorant—which would only, presumably, hurt sales.

Numerous women against #SpeakBeautiful have posted tweets along the lines of, “I don’t need Dove to tell me to love my body, thank you very much.” If you’re one of them, great for you! But what if other women do? A few positive words could go a long way, if not for the masses, then for someone. I suspect even Dove doesn’t much mind whether that person buys their soap.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, given the choice, will support the brand that encourages women to stop shunning their bodies. Does that make us victims of Dove’s ploy? No. It shows that we’re caring consumers who would rather see marketing campaigns focused on empowering women than stifling them, even if they profit as a result.


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