DoveAd1One day away from the Intertubes and I missed The Most Important Ad Launch Ever.

By which I mean Dove’s launch of the newest phase of its “Real Beauty” campaign, in which a “forensic artist” draws women just from their own self-description, and then from a description from a stranger. The Good Morning America crew  pored through the sketches, saying that it “just shows how hard women are on themselves.” At Glamour magazine, Amy Wicks posted it as Dove’s Inspiring New Ad Campaign Has Got Me Thinking (Seriously, I Get All Teary-Eyed Every Time I Watch It).  “It’s profound, to say the least,” says Ericka Souter at The Stir. By the time the ad came my way, a day late via Upworthy (source of 4o% of the most viral memes), I expected some mind-blowing insight from the guy with the fancy title and kind eyes.

Really? Turns out that what they mean by “other people see you differently” is “you’re not as fat/freckled/old as you think.” And that “real beauty” is essential to “our lives, our families.”

Not that I’m trying to underestimate the self-esteem issues we continue to have, or their real-world consequences. But I watched this thing three times, trying to see if there was any new information I was missing, anything besides what my mom told me when I was a teenager: “You don’t know how beautiful you are.”  Dove never defines what “real beauty” is in this ad: it’s a Rorschach blot. It’s up to us.

The usually skeptical Jezebel found “The Sketches” a generic self-acceptance campaign,  reminding us that “Dove has been committed to the social mission of building positive self-esteem for years; in 2004 the brand launched the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty; in 2006 the Dove Self-Esteem Fund was started.”

But Erin Keane at Salon sees both campaigns as simply increasing the pressure we put on ourselves. “The only interesting thing Dove has done since it began this campaign to sell soap in 2004 is overtly shift the emphasis from sexual attraction to peer approval. The real take-away is still that women should care whether a stranger thinks she is beautiful. That’s not radical—it’s the thesis of every beauty product ad campaign ever.” (The rest of Keane’s piece should definitely be read, with smart comparisons to preschool and Portlandia.) And the closer you look, the creepier it gets.

Jazzy Little Raindrops usefully points to the ad’s diversity issues: “When it comes to the diversity of the main participants: all four are Caucasian, three are blonde with blue eyes, all are thin, and all are young (the oldest appears to be 40). . . . One Asian woman is briefly shown looking at the completed drawings of herself and you see the back of a black woman’s head; neither are shown speaking. Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.”  Kaye Toal zeroes in on the double message in the ad’s first supposedly-affirming moment: “and the first stranger says, ‘She was thin, so you could see her cheekbones . . .  and her chin? It was a nice, thin chin…’ God, that hurt too.” You just don’t know how thin you are, the ad whispers, ratifying the culture’s never-too-rich-or-too-thin norms.

That message is even at odds with Dove’s own “self-esteem toolkit,” featuring entrepreneur Jess Weiner as its Self-Esteem Ambassador. Weiner’s own story would offer a richer narrative for Dove’s ad campaign than those “forensic sketches.” Weiner’s  Act Out Ensemble theater company toured schools around the country for 15 years with social-issue plays  about relationships, school violence, and hate crimes; she is also a contributing editor at Seventeen Magazine who cites Anna Deavere Smith as her role model. 

At New York magazine’s fashion blog The Cut,  Ann Friedman notes, “The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.” That, of course, is unlikely to sell soap, though it might sell some for Doctors Without Borders.

Weiner’s company, Talk to Jess LLC,  “is dedicated to making a positive difference in the messages that are sent to women and girls through advertising, media content, and marketing campaigns.” For Dove, that message should include a campaign that emphasizes the minds behind those faces, inside those bodies. In the process, it can include a far greater range of variation as to what we look like.