Sorry Dove, empowerment isn’t a personal care product

“Do you think you’re beautiful?” I ask my girlfriend, as we’re about to eat dinner. “Or do you think you’re just, like, kinda average really?” There ensues a silence that is above-average in awkwardness as she glares at me. I decide it’s probably wise to clarify the question. “Look,” I say, pushing two plates towards her. “Beauty is a choice – and the power of this choice is in your hands. Pick plate one if you think you’re beautiful. Pick plate two if you think you’re average. Hashtag ChooseBeautiful.” Long story short, she yelled at me until the food got cold.

The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t try to conduct dubious self-esteem experiments at home; you should leave them to multinational corporations. More specifically, you should leave them to Dove, which has mastered the art of passing off somewhat passive-aggressive and patronising advertising as super-empowering, ultra PR-able social commentary. The personal care brand has just released a film called Choose Beautiful, in which it sets out to “prove that beauty is a choice – and the power of this choice is in your hands”. Yeah, sorry, I didn’t make that sentence up. Dove, to its credit, set about proving its hypothesis via a more sophisticated mechanism than dinner plates; it used doors. The brand put signs saying “beautiful” and “average” above adjacent entrances to public buildings in five different cities. Then they turned on their cameras and recorded what happened next.

What happened next was that the vast majority of women they filmed walked through the door marked “average”, conveniently validating a survey by Dove that shows 96% of women rate themselves as average-looking. I can’t give you any anecdata about how many men think they’re beautiful, unfortunately, because there weren’t any men in the video. I don’t know what Dove did with all the men who wanted to get into the building but, let’s be honest, the methodology of the experiment isn’t really the point. The point is you watch the film, feel sort of sad about how hegemonic ideals of beauty impact women’s self-esteem, feel sort of warm and fuzzy about Dove, and tweet about all these feelings you’re having with the hashtag #ChooseBeautiful. And then, because this is an advertisement, the ultimate point is that you feel empowered to buy more Dove products next time you’re at the shops. After all, beauty is a choice – and the power of this choice is sometimes conveniently located in the body-wash section at Boots.

This isn’t the first time that Dove has tried to flog its products through social-media-friendly pseudo-science. Indeed, it has conducted a number of similar, and wildly successful, experiments over the last few years, and has pretty much perfected a formula of calculated social experiment + statistics + sad background music + earnest message about beauty ideals. And it appears to be a very profitable formula. Dove’s videos don’t just get millions of views, they apparently sell a lot of product. Unilever’s website notes: “Part of the success of our Dove Self-Esteem Project has been an increased willingness among consumers to spread the brand’s positive message and to purchase Dove’s products.” In 2014, Dove was ranked by Kantar as the world’s eighth most valuable personal-care brand, with an estimated value of $4.8bn.

Choose Beautiful looks set to continue to prove the profitability of Dove’s proprietary brand of empowerment. The video was launched on Tuesday and has already had about 2m views on YouTube. It has also had gushing write-ups from the media. Indeed, the word “empowerment” has been bandied around so much in relation to the advert that I can’t help feeling that someone needs to make an advert explaining what it actually means. In the meantime, here’s my own public service announcement: advertisements aren’t empowering.

Ads can be entertaining, they can be thought-provoking, they can be inspiring. But, please, let’s not call them empowering. They come with an agenda and that agenda is to sell you a product. So, sorry to break it to everyone, but your Deep Moisture Nourishing Body Wash doesn’t really care about you or your self-esteem. And your cucumber and green tea deodorant doesn’t give a damn about nurturing your confidence. Ultimately the aim of campaigns like this is not for you to choose beautiful, it’s for you to choose Dove.

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