Dove Ideology


The latest Dove advertising campaign, “Real Beauty Sketches,” has already garnered its share of well-deserved criticism: That “Dove is owned by Unilever – the same company that owns Axe, king of misogynistic ads.” That “the real take-away is still that women should care whether a stranger thinks she is beautiful.” That the women in the ads don’t look like the women one sees “on the subway, at highway rest stops, in suburban malls.” That the “main participants” are mostly Caucasian, blonde, thin, and young. Etc.

All that is true. But my interest in the ad is pedagogical. For me it is the perfect illustration of what I call the “bent-stick theory of ideology.”


This is the view that ideology is like wearing glasses that distort the world. All we need to do is apply the correcting lens of critique and we will be able to see the world as it really is. Calibrated correctly, our anti-ideological lenses will enable us to see the straight stick we know is there, not the bent stick distorted by the water. Or at least, like a hunter fishing in a stream, we will know where the stick really should be even if we can never truly rid ourselves of the distorting effects of ideology.

In the case of the Dove ads, this is illustrated by the women’s confrontation of the sketches showing them how they see themselves compared with how their friends see them.

Dove Ad

Since the picture on the right more closely fits with what the audience sees, the message is clear: the image on the left is a distorted image caused by low self-esteem. These women will need help from their friends and loved-ones to better see themselves as they really are: beautiful.

That Dove wants you to associate their product with this demystification is besides the point. They are like Penn and Teller, magicians who have made a career of dazzling audiences with magic even as they reveal their secrets.


Like Penn and Teller, Dove are doing advertising with clear plastic cups. They are still selling beauty, but they are doing so by associating their product with the “real,” “undistorted,” “inner-beauty” that our friends and lovers see in us but which we ourselves cannot see. Dove isn’t hiding anything from us, so revealing that they are still in the business of selling beauty products doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding the distorted self-images we see from these women’s self-descriptions.

In my discussion of David Graeber’s Debt I wrote:

Marxist ideology is not some kind of “false consciousness” which is simply imposed upon people by the media, it is the product of their lived experience within market based societies. Markets make us see the world in a certain way because markets involve us in certain forms of social action that lend themselves to see the world in a market-oriented way.

I would like to make the same argument for these women. A recent study of attitudes towards female politicians found that any mention of a female candidate’s appearance “whether those mentions are flattering, unflattering, or neutral — has a negative impact on her electability.”

Why might that be? One explanation might come from Bourdieu, who would talk of beauty as a kind of game.  Just mentioning how a politicians look (as Obama did with Attorney General Kamala Harris)  takes them off the political stage and places them on the stage of a beauty pageant.

Beauty Pageant

The critiques of the Dove ad I linked to above all made this point in the sense that they understand that the ad ultimately reinforces the importance of “beauty.” What I want to add to this discussion is to point out that a distorted self-image is a manifestation of misrecognition, not of false-consciousness. What is the difference? False-consciousness would imply that these women are simply deluded as a result of watching too many advertisements (presumably those advertisements made by Dove’s competitors). Misrecognition, on the other hand, is an accurate assessment of the beauty game (even if it mistakenly blames the individual for their inability to win the game). When lined up next to a dozen other women on the beauty pageant stage, the fact that their chin is too pointy or their brow too wide suddenly matters. Our society puts women in that lineup every day, whether or not they wish to be there. What is wrong with the Dove ad isn’t that it is selling beauty, but that it depoliticizing and psychologizing sociological critique in order to do so.

20 thoughts on “Dove Ideology

  1. I admit, I use the Dove photoshop ad in my WMST classes as an effective way to get across not only how much photo manipulation goes into making the images women are supposed to aspire towards — often images that no living person who wants to stay living could actually attain — but I then show them ads for other Unilever products like Axe (my fave was a website called, no gone, in which one used ones mouse to control a feather used to tickle a model as she lay in bed), skin bleaches sold in South Asia, and Slim Fast.

    The real issue in the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” ads for me is that the social critique offered isn’t really a social critique, it’s the status quo *disguised as* social critique, and mainly it’s what I call “righteousness porn”. Remember, the ads aren’t aimed at the women in them, they’re aimed at Dove’s target audience — middle- and upper-middle-class mothers 25-44. A typical tagline reads “Talk to your daughters about…”. As with much contemporary advertising, the problem Dove promises to fix isn’t what their actual products actually address (e.g. oily skin, facial wrinkles, etc.) but a lifestyle, in this case the opportunity to be a good woman, defined as being both physically beautiful AND a good mother. Watching a Dove ad allows women to feel the thrill of being emotionally and morally aroused because of her outrage, OUTRAGE I TELL YOU, over the messages “we’re” sending “our” daughters, our poor, innocent little princesses, about their bodies. Oh god, it feels SO GOOD! Which not only makes her feel a little bit better about the lessons she will teach her own daughters (through her use of Dove products: “Honey, I use Dove because they’re about ‘real’ beauty”) but also makes her feel a little bit better about using a line of products intended to address all the same BS problems that the ads pretend we don’t believe are problems (through her use of Dove products: “I can fight crow’s feet, oily skin, dry patches, and all the other things that make me ugly and that’s ok because it’s Dove and it’s about ‘real’ beauty”).

  2. I don’t know if you’ve already seen it or not, but shortly after this Dove video went up, a parody video was released reversing the gender of the “subjects.”

    Here’s the link:

    I kind of think there is more actual social critique in the parody than in the cleverly disguised “righteousness porn” (thank you for that phrase, Dustin!).

  3. If this is a real experiment, anthropologists can learn an important lesson from it. To me, this is about the process of seeing/viewing. The women in the video describe themselves differently because of their preexisting views of themselves, their practice of humility that prevents them to see themselves as beautiful, their low self-esteem that affects how they view themselves, their personal histories/stories that define who/what they are.

    The process of seeing/viewing the women employ is minimalizing/limiting–the same process done by most anthropologists in the field–and causes distortion. If we go deep, it is no different to going to the field with preconceived theories and planned theoretical frameworks that make anthropologists myopic or even blind. A Marxist anthropologist will only see class and alienation in a cultural phenomenon that involves other things that do not fit to his theoretical framework. He can complicate the simple or simplify the complicated. He can even exclude what is not interesting to him and include what is barely observable.

    The woman who said, “My mother told me my chin…,” reminded me of myself years ago when my professor told me about Foucault. I did believe her when she said it was the strippers who objectified men and their gaze. When a stripper I met and befriended rejected such idea, she asked, “How can we objectify men who objectify us? Should I see them naked the way they see me? Should I reduce them to what they have between their legs the way they reduce me to my sex organ? If I do those things, I give them more pleasure. I thought objectification is a bad thing to the objectified” (copied verbatim from my field notes). That was when I started questioning the theory-ladenness of how observation–seeing and viewing–is done in anthropology.

    Did the professor see stripping differently because of her theory? Did the stripper questioned the professor’s observation due to the absence of theory and because she viewed stripping with a naked eye (no pun intended) and saw it as what it really was?

  4. *question

    I forgot to include the role of those who somewhat correctly describe (view/see) the women.

    Are their correct descriptions due to their objective seeing/viewing unaffected by personal connection and emotional attachment that affect one’s honesty in saying the truth? A mother won’t really tell her ugly daughter that she has a face of an ogre.

    Relating it to anthropology, does attachment to theories predispose anthropologists to be intellectually dishonest? If one is a postmodernist, I don’t think he will include the data that invalidates postmodernism in his study.

  5. There’s no such thing as a “pure perception” that’s not shaped by theory, social forces, and individual life history. I think that’s a dead-end as a way of looking at all this. The people who are describing the women in more gentle terms aren’t more closely approaching “the truth”, their views of the subjects are just as much constructed as the subjects’ are of themselves.

    What *is* interesting is this notion of objectification of the male audience member, who of course aren’t being related to as full persons by strippers any more than strippers are related to as full persons by their patrons (for the most part — there are, of course, billions of different stripper-patron relationships). Given how money is used in the construction of masculinity in our society, it is not far off to say that the stripper mentioned does indeed reduce her patrons to what’s between their legs.

  6. I think that most critiques of the Dove advertisement sidestep the obvious issue that we’re viewing a commercial and, thus, miss the knockout punch. This film is not research, it is not an ethnographic study, and it is not a documentary. It may pretend to be all of the above by superficially appropriating their techniques, but its sole purpose is to manipulate the viewer into a state of miasmic good feelings toward the company that eventually translates into purchases. It’s a setup that masks the commercial message behind a charade of revelatory meaning supported by a tinge of truth-telling that the audience may recognize – some women tend to be self-deprecating about their appearance – without, of course, asking’ which women’, ‘why that may be so’, etc., etc. – and once we’ve bitten, goes on to puff up appearance into beauty into truth that brings on the weepiness, an identification with the truth-teller, and the eventual sought after purchase, when a more appropriate action would be the boycott of all Unilever products. The cleverness of the commercial relies on our having already been generationally inculcated into the grammar of advertisement and it’s toolbox of tricks – a mainstay being the ‘blind test’ that has sold us everything from diapers to cereals, to cigarettes, which we have absorbed as reliable and objective scientific procedure – the forensic illustrator behind the (wizard of Oz) curtain recording ‘just the facts, Ma’am.’ Even accepting the terms of the advertisement – the place of beauty, et al – what’s amazing is the buy-in to something so specious – 100% of the women depicting themselves unflatteringly and 100% of their new found friends, the opposite. All in all its a classic tale of how Albert Memmi describes the paralyzing effects of colonial power that succeeds so effortlessly once the colonized have been taught to affirm what infirms them.

  7. “There’s no such thing as a “pure perception” that’s not shaped by theory, social forces, and individual life history. I think that’s a dead-end as a way of looking at all this. ”

    Does that mean there is no objectivity in anthropology or empiricism is impossible?

    “Given how money is used in the construction of masculinity in our society, it is not far off to say that the stripper mentioned does indeed reduce her patrons to what’s between their legs.”

    Without the influence of a theory, I saw the stripper as someone offering services and “goods” to paying customers (tips/commission from drinks/fee if sex is involved). It’s purely business.

    Redefining “objectification” so a theory will work is a stretch and a straw man to me. Objectified strippers feel marginalized and alienated and experience low self-esteem and emotional numbness. Do men who watch strippers gyrate around the pole have those dehumanizing feelings?

  8. Yes, there’s no objectivity in anthropology or anything else. That’s pretty old news, actually. There is, of course, empiricism — that’s all we got!

    I would say that reducing two people to goods and purchaser is pretty objectifying. But of course, if stripping and going to strip clubs was “just business”, it wouldn’t be surrounded with all the stigma and moral concern that pretty much defines both acts.

    And I know LOTS AND LOTS of strippers, and very, very few feel “marginalized and alienated and experience low self-esteem and emotional numbness”. In fact, they’re about the best-adjusted folks I know — you want marginalization, alienation, low self-esteem, and emotional numbness, hang out with artists! If you want to talk about empiricism, I’d say, keep to observed reality and not assumptions. Likewise about the patrons — I would say that some, not all, patrons feel dehumanized, and certainly alienation is no stranger for men who frequent strip clubs. Not all, of course, but there is certainly enough of a stigma to make some men feel uncomfortable and dehumanization has certainly been well-documented by people who research strip clubs.

  9. “Yes, there’s no objectivity in anthropology or anything else. That’s pretty old news, actually. There is, of course, empiricism — that’s all we got!”

    Even empiricism lacks objectivity? No wonder real scientists are dismissive of anthropology.

    “And I know LOTS AND LOTS of strippers, and very, very few feel “marginalized and alienated and experience low self-esteem and emotional numbness”.”

    A study with small sample size (18) though.

    I only had four informants. They were all tough and “fierce” when they talked to men and were normal. They were proud of what they did for work. Pride in what they did was just their facade. When they were drunk or high, they broke down and hated themselves, their jobs, and the men that patronized them.

  10. @virtual patriot- check out books like “Science as Power” by Stanley Aronowitz, “Science as Social Knowledge” by Helen Longino, “Critique of Scientific Reason” by Kurt Hubner, “Against Method” by Paul Feyerabend etc. The real scientists you mention can’t access a value-free zone of objectivity that is cut off from social contexts and underlying assumptions about the world

  11. Latour’s retraction of his anti-science rhetorics is enough a reading for me.

    Why complicate things? Just read stuff about objective truth and objective reality. For empiricism, go back to Locke, Hobbes, Berkeley, Hume. Save your money.

  12. “Even empiricism lacks objectivity? No wonder real scientists are dismissive of anthropology.”

    I think you’re confused about your terms — there’s nothing about empiricism that implies objectivity, and the term is generally used *in opposition* to objectivity. In any case, there’s no more empirical science than anthropology (a critique fans of objectivity often lodge against it) but observation requires instruments of observation and unless you’re God, your instruments are necessarily partial and filtered. That doesn’t mean that useful insight isn’t gained through close observation of the world — planes (mostly) fly, after all — only that the idea that there’s some “true” reality that we can perceive directly is misguided — planes fly, after all, using laws of aerodynamics that only closely approximate the way we understand the world to work, and that understanding is, in turn, changing and evolving. Reality has a fairly high error tolerance.

  13. [Stepping in here. This discussion has veered a bit off course. While issues of objectivity/empiricism are related to that of ideology, it is not the main topic of this post.]

  14. Kerim, can you please discuss why you chose to use the term ‘Caucasian’ in this post and not the term ‘white’? Especially in light of last week’s Boston bombing and the way in which the Tsarnaevs are being constructed as ‘not white’ by virtue of being ethnic Chechen/Muslim, though literally being Caucasian. (As the Anthropology Report link notes, I was already asking this question elsewhere before raising it here, now.) But I think it is worth raising it again here in relation to the question of white privilege/power/supremacy, which very much is at the heart of this discussion of beauty and the Dove ad campaign. Making explicit the link between whiteness and white power/privilege/supremacy is one of the reasons that I think it is important to use the term white and to ‘discuss white privilege’, especially when interrogating normative assumptions about beauty, embodiment, corporeality, how bodies move in and through the (social) world. After all, as Cameron Russell explicitly discusses in her TED talk on being a model (which Ryan linked to in one of his previous race posts), contemporary hegemonic notions of beauty are very much connected to whiteness and white power/privilege/supremacy.

    Especially as anthropologists, do we want to use terms like Caucasian, which reify false notions of biological race, when the real issue is whiteness and the racist beauty ideals it produces (globally)?

    How might all of this also relate to the issue of ‘anthropology as white public space’? What are the stakes of using the term ‘white’ instead?

    And apropos of this issue of whiteness in relation to the category ‘Caucasian’ (and the racial Other-ness in which whiteness is always being defined):

    Also relevant, I think:

  15. I used the term because that was the term used in the article I quoted, even though re-phrasing led to it ending up outside of the quotation marks. I posted the following article to my Twitter feed on April 19th [PDF]: so I was not unaware of these issues when I wrote this post. I personally find that using the term Caucasian at this time is a useful rebuttal to those who wish to claim that the Tsarnaev brothers are “not white,” and I don’t see “white” as any less problematic a word choice. In my mind the term Caucasian usefully historicizes the term, while whiteness makes it seem more of a biological concept. Are color-based terms as proxies for racial discourse any less problematic? I once wrote a post about a color-toy used by early anthropologists to categorize skin color. The site is down, but it is archived from our RSS feed:

  16. Kerim, thanks for explaining the word choice.

    I think it is interesting that you see the term Caucasian as a more historical/historicizing term than white. I am not sure that I agree. No doubt context matters (both in time and space), but i believe that when most people use it in the US context they are not using it because they see it as a ‘less biological’ term than white. If anything, it seems to be used to reference the ‘scientific’ racial categories of past centuries and to invoke the idea that these racial categories exist and are biologically accurate ways to classify humans. The term Caucasian also seems to be used when people are trying to avoid using the term white, for any number of reasons, including an uneasiness with appearing ;racist’ such that it is used as a kind of discursive shield so as to say, See, I’m just using the ‘scientific’ term. I think it is worth noting the ways in which the term Caucasian is still used though the corresponding ‘historical’ terms like Negro and Mongoloid are not used with the same frequency. The symbolic power of the term white is of course much different, as is the symbolic power of the terms Negro and Mongoloid instead of black and Asian.

    I actually find white to be the more historicizing term, especially in relation to drawing attention to the post-European colonization construction of race. Though I do agree that it in the present moment it is worth drawing attention to the Caucasian-ness of the Tsarnaevs so as to challenge their current racialization as Muslim Terrorists and thus NONWHITE RACIAL OTHER.

    Mainly, I do not find the term Caucasian as sufficiently historicizing in relation to the centuries-long process of racial formation that has occurred in relation to the category of whiteness–including the ways in which it has expanded to (and continues to expand) to include groups which were formerly not considered white–and especially in relation to the history of racial violence justified by explicit appeals to white power and white supremacy.

    And of course the terms white and black (and I am focusing on these terms as they are the dominant binary through which a light-skinned/dark-skinned (geo)racial hierarchy is constructed) are ridiculous as descriptors of actual skin tones–I remember exactly the skin-tone post to which you referred–but I think this is yet another reason to use the term, and another way in which it speaks to an ongoing and historical project of inclusion/exclusion, domination, privilege, discrimination, and inequality rooted in phenotypic differences which have come to be indexed by skin color even as they poorly describe it.

    Especially in relation to the continuing salience of the term black, and the persistence of antiblack racism, the term Caucasian is not more historicizing than the term white.

  17. @DWP, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I will think about it (promise).

    For now, let me point out that the word came up in the context of a list of things I said I agreed with, but would not be talking about in this post. I’d rather discuss what I actually did talk about…

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