The Girl in the Shower
More cheap feminism from Dove.
The Spot: A woman cavorts in her shower while applying Dove Cream Oil moisturizer. (Click here to watch the spot.)
This new spot from Dove hits on a couple of current advertising trends. First, it debuted during the Academy Awards telecast—increasingly, the Super Bowl of splashy ads for women. As Ad Age has noted, Oscars ads cost significantly less than Super Bowl ads: $1.7 million compared with $2.6 million for a 30-second spot this year. They reach a more heavily female audience (60 percent of Oscars viewers are women, while that figure drops to less than 50 percent for the football game). And while Super Bowl advertisers face the risk of a massive tune-out if the game grows lopsided, the biggest Oscar presentations are saved for the tail end of the broadcast, so viewers generally stick around. All of which makes the Oscars an appealing platform for brands like L'Oreal, Diet Coke, and of course Dove.
This spot is also the latest example of consumer-generated advertising—a suddenly ubiquitous tactic which involves companies asking regular people to submit homemade ads for various products. In this case, the regular person is a 22-year-old woman from Sherman Oaks, Calif. She entered a Dove-sponsored contest that drew more than 1,000 hopefuls. On Oscar night, her ad was broadcast after being announced the winner by Grey's Anatomy actress (and plus-sized hottie) Sara Ramirez.
I liked the consumer-generated ad for Doritos that ran during this year's Super Bowl—the one with people acting out adjectives like "crunchy" and "cheesy." That ad was clever, and competently produced. By contrast, this Dove ad is just atrocious. It uses a cheap video camera and murky lighting, and stars an average-looking woman being filmed as she takes a shower. The result bears a queasy resemblance to amateur pornography—though I'm told that even bargain-basement porn features flashier production values and more compelling actresses.
The ad fails on myriad levels. It doesn't make Dove Cream Oil visually appealing (it's a skin-care product, but this woman's skin looks dim and greenish in the grainy footage). It doesn't illustrate Cream Oil's differentiating attribute (it's oil whipped into cream, which theoretically makes it both a good moisturizer and easier to apply). And the ad falls back on flat, heard-it-a-million-times copy ("Your skin has never felt like this!").
One of the upsides of letting consumers make ads is that, with their sheer numbers and naïve enthusiasm, they're bound to bubble up a few zany, original ideas. But, apparently, Dove struck out. A thousand entries, and this is the most inspired clip anyone submitted? Singing in the shower? What a bold new take on a spot for a bath product! (The other two Dove finalists are also weak. The first features another simpering coed in her bathroom; the second, a skydiving spot, has mild flair and a likable protagonist.) Either Dove is ignoring the spicier contest entries in favor of the most conventional, or Dove's consumers are unpalatably boring. If nothing else, I hope this spot will teach marketers that consumer-made ads still need to be entertaining to be worthwhile. We're not excited that someone won a contest—if the ad sucks, it doesn't matter who made it.
As for the ongoing Dove campaign: The last time I wrote about a Dove ad (I had mixed feelings about it), I got about a thousand e-mail responses—most of them from extremely angry ladies. It seems a lot of women have strong emotional attachments to Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty." Not coincidentally, the campaign is working. Dove's sales have been up since it began.
I clearly underestimated the widespread female desire to see nonemaciated women in ads for beauty products. These Dove ads feel so refreshing on that score that I understand why women might want to cast a vote (with their dollars) for the products behind them.
I still can't shake the feeling, though, that this reasonable impulse is a bit misguided. Dove's appeal to righteous sisterhood is just another flavor of marketing. And it's not particularly grounded in reality. Are we meant to believe that Unilever, the company that makes Dove, is a force for good? How to reconcile this notion with the ads for another Unilever product, Axe body spray, in which nearly every woman shown is a skinny, fashion-model-gorgeous nymphomaniac? (And by the way, Unilever also offers Slimfast, in case you're not quite as happy with your body as the Dove girls are.)
There's a reason advertising in the beauty industry is almost always aspirational (Oh, if I buy this, I'll look more like the stunningly beautiful woman in the ad?). I would love to think that, with the help of these Dove spots, women will forget all about society's unfair beauty standards and simply aspire to feel good about themselves. That would be wonderful. But I find it hard to believe that Dove has actually reversed a lot of powerful instincts that are deeply rooted in the human psyche. Down the line a little—when the buzz has faded from Dove's social statement as sales pitch—I think we'll begin to see some skinnier, hotter women slipping into their advertising.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.