Gender presentations in the media are a major contributor to perceptions of gender parity, equal opportunity, and the role of women in society. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry in particular perpetuates images that are not always reflective of real women or of the value that they bring to communities and the workplace.
A major player in the beauty industry, Dove recognizes its part in empowering women through realistic representations of femininity and beauty. Over 13 years ago, when Dove executives found the brand being overshadowed by other companies, they commissioned a study of 3,000 women in 10 countries that found that only 2 percent of women considered themselves to be beautiful.
Seeing an opportunity to speak directly to what women were thinking and feeling, they launched the Campaign for Real Beauty, which evolved from the early methods of interactive billboard images depicting real women of various ethnicities, ages and body types tolater on hosting photo exhibitions, producing short films like Evolution and Dove Real Beauty Sketches, and creating the Self Esteem Project, aimed promoting body confidence and self-esteem education for young people.
More recently, Dove teamed up with advertising agency Mindshare Denmark to launch an innovative ad campaign to overhaul the images of women that we see in the media, acknowledging that “When 68% of all women can’t identify themselves with the images they see in advertising, it’s time for change.”
The campaign, called Image_hack, partnered with prominent photographers to upload images of “real” women doing diverse jobs to stock image sites, tagging them “beautiful woman.” They then targeted advertising companies, encouraging them to use these images in their campaigns instead of the traditional representations of beauty that we are so used to seeing.
The campaign and its results are detailed in this video:
While Dove should be commended for the longevity of the Campaign for Real Beauty and for the important conversation they are starting with the Image_hack campaign, they both have gaping holes that leave the projects feeling contrived and small in scope.
For example, the Image_hack campaign seems like a timid step toward filling a major gap in the Self Esteem Project: how far can educating young people in self-esteem and body confidence actually go if they do not see themselves represented as beautiful or valuable in mainstream media?
The Image_hack campaign boasts 1729 images downloaded, 42 brands joining the mission and 40 million media impressions of the photos.
In the grand scheme of the media that we consume on a daily basis, this is a miniscule impact. Even more, it seems that the campaign is centered in a small geographic area in Europe; if you do a “beautiful woman” search on Shutterstock in the U.S. today, your results will be the same whitewashed, scantily clad and hyper-sexualized photos as usual.
Furthermore, while the images that the campaign promotes do represent women working in non-traditional careers, they present a distinct lack of ethnic and age diversity.
Advertisers often present the argument that using these sorts of images has been proven effective for profit margins; they claim they are just giving people what they want.
But what if this represents a market opportunity for Dove and other companies in diverse industries. What if—instead of blaming market forces for their use of misogynist imagery—these companies innovated and put themselves on the vanguard of a market opportunity that appeals to a broader audience by confronting the market limitation and chartering new territory?
As product engineers these companies know that their relationship to the market is much more symbiotic. Innovation means placing new products and ideas into the market that people did not realize they need.
It means showing people how much better it can be.
Dove doesn’t release sales figures, but executives suggest that sales have been boosted as a result of these campaigns. So the question remains: how can we increase the scope and impact of campaigns like these and incentivize buy-in from other major industry players?
If Dove released numbers, would other companies be compelled to join in? What is stopping them from expanding the Image_hack campaign to truly shake up the stock photo and ad industry?
And finally: How do we reconcile the work that Dove is doing in this area with some of the products sold by its parent company Unilever, like Fair & Lovely skin whitening cream.
We need to address self-esteem, confidence, and possibility at all levels of society, because it effects women’s ability to move forward or to assume leadership roles where they can leverage their education, skills, and talents to start creating change in THIS generation, to pave the way for our youth and to model what is possible for them.
And the media can and should be leveraged as a prominent modality in that change.
As Dove astutely says in their Dove Inner Critic Campaign: “Think of all the things we could achieve if low self-esteem and bad body image didn’t hold us back ... there’s still much work to do to repair the relationship we have with beauty – and ... it’s massively important that we do.”
Mandy Sciacchitano is a Wellness Coach and Copyeditor for A Million Smart Women