Dove Straps Heart Monitors on Men to See How They React to Models, and Their Loved Ones

Portuguese spot makes a questionable point

Imagine you're asked to assess the beauty of airbrushed photos of professional models—and then regular snapshots of your spouse, or a close family member.

A new Dove ad from Portugal does that to a group of men, sitting them down in an empty warehouse and strapping them to a heart monitor in an attempt to measure their emotional response when a screen flashing pictures of stereotypically attractive women—the kind who might grace a shampoo ad with a half-smile—suddenly gives way to pictures of wives, sisters, daughters and grandmothers.

The mens' reactions, as the ad tells it, go from clinical and detached to deeply invested, as they begin describing their personal connections to the women on screen and their tickers beat faster. One subject admires his grandmother's wrinkles. Another marvels at his wife's smile. A third chokes up at the uniqueness of his daughter—a flash of vanity that's also perhaps the ad's most credible, and moving, moment.

"Real beauty touches the heart," coos the tagline, the latest twist on the marketer's long-running campaign to combat fantastical definitions of what constitutes attractiveness.

That's a sweet sentiment, from agency Black Ship, and it seems clear the ad's genuine intent—insofar as it can have one beyond selling soap—is to help those women who would compare themselves to pages in a magazine. Unfortunately, this particular approach feels off the mark.

Given its basic staging, it can't but evoke Dove's "Real Beauty Sketches" from 2013, one of the brand's most successful and celebrated twists on its generally uplifting message. Also set in a warehouse, that spot saw a criminal sketch artist draw drastically different versions of women based on their own descriptions, and those of a stranger. But where that drove home a point, real or contrived, about some women's radically distorted perceptions of their own appearance, this new spot seems to reach a conclusion that, at least for anyone who's not a sociopath, seems much more obvious—namely, that beauty is having an actual close relationship with someone.

The infamous stare-into-the-eyes-for-four-minutes experiment might call even that point into question. But the problem isn't just that the new Dove ad could come across as pandering—it's that the ad seems ironically superficial. People are expected to love their loved ones. And whether the men in a woman's life find her more beautiful than they do a stranger is, in a couple of ways, an odd point for Dove to be litigating.

Historically, the issue at stake was the literally impossible—that is to say, heavily Photoshopped—standards that the fashion and beauty industries impose on women who don't have professional retouchers fixing their imperfections, in real life, at every moment throughout the day. The genuine affection of a husband or brother or father may be an nice ego boost, but it doesn't begin to address the broader, exacting scrutiny that women constantly face in an often shallow world.

It's also not clear why the approval of male figures is an appropriate method for raising the self-esteem of women. "Don't compare yourself to that glossy bimbo, so long as you have a man around who loves you," the ad seems to say—an oddly regressive argument.

All that's not to mention the fact that it's pure junk science. Even assuming the spot isn't staged, as such so-called tests usually are, anyone asked unexpectedly to discuss their personal relationships while on camera might find their heart rates rising for reasons other than, or in addition to, the beauty of their family members. (If anxiety were a factor, Dove might consider bringing in Pedigree and a bunch of dogs to help calm the humans down.)

Plus, there's the question of whether Dove's obsession with beauty is really the right tack for the brand's messaging at this point, or whether its efforts might be better spent emphasizing other metrics of self-worth. Or perhaps at least sticking with the strategy behind some of its other recent advertising—maintaining an empowering message without delving into dubious social experiments.