The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine: The Latest Beauty Product: Concern

On Sunday, the cosmetics company Dove released a three-minute video on YouTube called “Dove Real Beauty Sketches”. By Friday it had nearly 9m views. The video features a former forensic artist from the San Jose police department sitting behind a white curtain as several women tell him, one after another, what they look like. “Tell me about your chin…your jaw,” he asks, as he sketches. Their replies are candid. “My mum told me I had a big jaw.” “I have a fat, rounder face.” “The older I’ve gotten, the more freckles I’ve gotten.”

After that, the artist asks each of the women to describe the looks of one of the other women (they are each introduced to one other person). “She was thin, so you could see her cheek bones.” “She had a cute nose.” The women are smiling now and looking into the camera. When the two drawings of each woman are hung side-by-side, the contrast is clear and the women are speechless and teary. The caption reads: “Women are their own worst beauty critics.”

This does not exactly prove it. Most people, when prompted to describe their appearances in front of a camera, would probably be modest about their own looks and generous about others. But Dove goes further. The next caption reads: “Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.”

The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign has been going since 2004. Plenty of people since then have pointed out the contradiction that Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns “Slim Fast”, a brand of bars, shakes and supplements that promote weight loss. “Fair and Lovely”, another Unilever product, is a skin-whitening cream marketed across Asia and Africa. But even if Dove were not owned by Unilever, there’s something about the campaign that feels manipulative: if 96% of women considered themselves beautiful that might leave the company without much of a customer base.

On Thursday evening, a parody appeared on YouTube. By Friday afternoon, 400,000 had seen that.

Originally published in the Intelligent Life Magazine online, 19 April 2013

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