Dove calls out the media over sexism towards female athletes in latest campaign

A new US campaign for Dove aims to tackle the way that the media focuses on female athletes’ looks over their sporting prowess. But can an advertising campaign for a brand ever really implement cultural change?

The ad is the latest iteration of Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay campaign, where real women articulate their irritations about the narrow definitions of beauty in mainstream media.

In this new version, focused on female athletes, digital billboards in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto are live streaming the kind of beauty-orientated comments, often negative, that the media focuses on when discussing female sports stars. Viewers are then encouraged to visit a ‘hub’ online where they can complain to the media outlets in question using pre-scripted tweets that feature the campaign’s hashtag. The campaign is backed by US gymnast Shawn Johnson, who is acting as a spokesperson for Dove.

Film promoting the campaign

Image from Dove's website, illustrating some of the media quotes targeted by the campaign
Image from Dove’s website, illustrating some of the media quotes targeted by the campaign

It is hard to knock Dove’s intention with this campaign, which fits into a long history of ads from the brand aimed at encouraging female empowerment. And in taking aim at the media – rather than individual social media users, for example – it has a worthy target. After all, many individuals take their lead from news outlets: if it is seen as okay to report on women in these terms there, then others will assume it is also OK to engage in casual sexism too.

And yet, I can’t help feeling slightly discomforted by the idea of seeing these negative slogans writ large on billboards, in the service of advertising commercial products, even if the intention is a worthy one. Is there a risk that people will just laugh at comments such as ‘huge nipples’ and miss the more complex message behind them?

It cuts to the heart of the difficulty of brands engaging in advocacy while also flogging their wares. Whereas sites such as Everyday Sexism invite individuals to call out instances of casual (and sometimes not-at-all casual) abuse, Dove doing it on everyone’s behalf cloys slightly.

From Dove #MyBeautyMySay website
From Dove #MyBeautyMySay website
Example response tweet from the #MyBeautyMySay website
Example response tweet from the #MyBeautyMySay website

Brands are increasingly recognising the commercial benefit of being seen to do ‘good’ within society. We are getting used to these kinds of campaigns now and are perhaps therefore in more of a position to critique their value. Are they just another kind of slogan, or can they really generate change?

The large platform advertising has means brands can reach a lot of people with their messaging, but there is a risk that the cultural change they are (supposedly) trying to implement can get confused with their own slogans and messages, ultimately undermining the cause. For example, by saying #MyBeautyMySay, Dove isn’t really moving the conversation for female athletes away from an emphasis on looks, it is merely trying to reframe it, in a way that suits the brand and its general advertising.

So while I salute Dove for making a worthwhile point, and drawing attention to an issue that will no doubt become more prevalent over the next few weeks as the Rio Olympics take place, I rather wish the conversation could have taken place outside of the context of ‘beauty’ at all, and certainly without a chirpy brand hashtag. But then, of course, it wouldn’t be advertising.

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