Dove (D)evolution

The beauty company says it's helping improve young women's self-esteem, but its much-lauded ad campaign may not be sending the right message

Last week, Dove (ULVR) launched the Reality Diaries online. These are the daily video diaries of four girls between ages 15 and 17, and the series provides the latest installment in the brand's Campaign for Real Beauty, intended to promote healthy self-esteem in girls.

Over the past year, Dove's Evolution, a short film showing the accelerated transformation of a girl going from frumpy to billboard-ready, has been scooping up awards left and right (including the Cyber and Film Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival). After its initial success, Dove has continued the campaign with new films, such as the recent Onslaught. All the installments have been hailed within the marketing community.

But after watching the diaries and the latest video, we found ourselves asking, "If this is supposed to be good for me, why does it make me feel bad?"

So we asked around. And after hearing the same reaction from dozens of girls, we decided to stop ignoring our instincts and to figure out just what is going on. And when we stripped away the amazing music and cool video effects of these films and got down to the real message, we realized there's a contradiction here. Dove claims it's helping girls to build self-esteem. Instead, it often feels like they're encouraging people to pass judgment on girls. The anti-beauty-industry tack doesn't fly for a generation that uses Photoshop to clean up their Facebook images and is used to seeing paparazzi images of celebrities on bad days.

Here we take an in-depth look at three of the films and share the views of some of the girls whose opinions we gathered.

True Colors

If I hate my freckles, it doesn't mean I have "issues." This film implies that low self-esteem is predominantly a girl's issue, and that healthy people love every part of themselves. We don't agree. A healthy girl can love herself and hate her freckles. Self-respect doesn't demand that we think we are perfect, or that we love every aspect of ourselves. Dove's perspective on self-esteem is itself superficial. You can have great self-esteem but hate your nose. You can be absolutely beautiful, but still have low self-esteem. Freckle-acceptance isn't the solution. If you are truly struggling with these types of issues, the cure is a long, deep process.

Moreover, these inner struggles are not just a girl's issue. What man or boy doesn't compare himself to others? What male athlete doesn't look to see how he measures up in the locker room? The entire human race struggles with complete self-acceptance.


If I like my curling iron, does that mean I am a bad person? If a girl says she's off to get a blow-out, the last thing she wants to hear her boyfriend or family member ask is what's wrong with her. In this video, Dove seems to be judging girls for putting time, money, and effort into their hair. However, most of the girls we know find a lot of fun, creativity, expression, relaxation, and imagination in playing with their hair. A trip to the salon can be a mini-vacation. If a girl decides to spring for extensions "just because," or to experiment with being blonde for a day, that doesn't mean she's vain, superficial, or insecure. She is likely just having a good, healthy time.

Dove's hair campaign slogan is "Love your hair." I thought playing with my hair was loving it. If I loved my hair the way Dove wants me to, what would I do? Nothing? When girls love their hair, they feed it great products, play with it, invent new styles, and enjoy taking care of it. They don't do nothing.

And every girl knows that even that coveted, Dove-endorsed, natural look takes some skill and effort! Is that vanity? Try talent. Don't underestimate the dexterity and precision it takes to do a great updo or to color your hair with uniformity.


If I get a nose job, does that make me a loser? This is what Onslaught seems to be implying. It feels mean and judgmental. Participating in fashion, cosmetics, exercise, or even plastic surgery doesn't necessarily make a girl unhealthy. Her nose job could be an act of courage, her fashion pure play, and the makeup an important artistic outlet. This video confronts us with images of obsessive behaviors, from extreme dieting to compulsive plastic surgery. But obsessions are symptoms, not the problem itself. And most self-image illnesses have little to do with the beauty industry. The beauty industry is not inherently bad: It is a person's relationship to the beauty industry and the motives behind her choices that matter. Whatever the situation, judgment is not helpful or enlightening. Instead, it is alienating and hurtful.

The Bigger Picture

Despite the negativity in these films, Dove can't believe the beauty industry is all evil. It sells everything from soaps to hairsprays to anti-aging creams. If it isn't trying to have its cake and eat it too, then Dove must see a place where self-love and self-care can live together healthily. As a group committed to improving girl marketing, we applaud anyone who makes an effort to elevate self-esteem, and that includes the Dove Self-Esteem Fund.

But could Dove have done it better? Yes, by not reinforcing the age-old bias that says girls are weak. We need to teach the world not to judge girls but rather to respect them as equals.

True evolution would elevate the image of young females by focusing on the universality of esteem issues. Every human struggles with self-esteem; the only difference is that people express it in distinct ways. Hair, cars, shoes, stereos, diet bars, protein powders, couture bags, elite country clubs: These are all tools people use to elevate their sense of self.

The only problem is that hair, shoes, or diet bars are looked down on. When playing with your hair is seen as just as valid a habit as souping up your car, then we will have begun the journey to a real self-esteem evolution.

By Rosaura Lezama, Sarah Henry, and Heidi Dangelmaier.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.