For a while, the mega-global corporation, Unilever — owner of Dove beauty products — spoke thoughtfully to the world’s women.
The 13-year-long “Real Beauty” campaign that began in the early ’90s aimed to “change the conversation” about gender by presenting women of many colors, sizes, and body shapes in its ads for soap products. Although the campaign had its critics, it seemed to garner far more admiration than assault. Sure, Unilever also produced horrible Slim Fast powders and skin-whitening creams that undermined the body-positive and multiracial values that the new Dove campaign claimed to promote.
But . . . those images.
Who wouldn’t smile at this anti-one-size-fits-all ad?
But last spring, the latest installment in the campaign that declared itself on the side of women launched a new ad that angered far more viewers. Showing women of diverse sizes and shapes was one thing. Showing bottles of diverse sizes and shapes was another.
And the new campaign for body washes explicitly equated women with those bottles. Ugh.
Oh, we’ve been there before. We’ve had decades of ads equating women with cars.
And bottles of beer.
Feminist media critics such as Jean Kilbourne have been brilliantly critiquing those sorts of offensive ads objectifying women for decades.
Online, some sharp viewers (including one named, intriguingly, Kristina Chäadé Dove) schooled Unilever in the shameful history of soap companies promoting racist assumptions about cleanliness.
The Twitterverse has wondered how this outrageously racist ad could have gotten approved. One blogger has commented, “It leaves one wondering if there are any people of color that make decisions at Dove.”
Well, let’s recall that the Dove’s parent company is Unilever, after all — headquartered in the Netherlands. The Dutch have a long history of denying the racism behind their colonial empire. So, perhaps, no.
Meanwhile, along comes General Mills. A new pair of ads follows in the footsteps of Dove’s earlier successes. Instead of urging women to diet, or binge-eat — or both — these ads actually encourage women to have a normal relationship to food. You know: Eat when you’re hungry. Enjoy what you’re eating.
Or, as one ad concludes: “Own it.”
The new stage directions in the theatre of global advertising: Enter General Mills, Exit Unilever.
But this simple math equation, which seems to evoke only a single solution, raises disturbing ethical questions. Does corporate society have space for more than one enlightened-feminist ad campaign at a time? Will any of these feminist-inspired campaigns affect more mainstream corporations to produce images challenging gender inequity — stereotype-busting images that our society still so desperately needs?