Driving down Highway 101 in July en route to San Francisco International Airport, Jeff Goodby couldn't help but notice Dove's real beauties on billboard after billboard after billboard. Heading for a 4:15 p.m. flight to Chicago to meet with his Discover Card client, the co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners lauded Ogilvy & Mather's Dove campaign, which galvanizes curvaceous, large and older women.
"It's an aspirational campaign to me," says Goodby. "It's not a brand new idea to go out and show people who are not classically beautiful. But the people they chose are just perfect. They are unusual-looking and make you question the whole idea of what beauty is."
That's just what Dove intended to do. For too long, say Dove executives, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. Thus, its "Campaign for Real Beauty" has taken Madison Avenue and the country by storm [see story on page 34]. Everyone is talking about the women who embrace their curves and have allowed their scantily clad selves to become the inspirational poster children for today's women. These self-assured crusaders who have been the subject of countless articles and news programs aim to change the perception of beauty and reverse the age-old belief that you have to be thin, blond and possess flawless skin to be considered gorgeous.
The jury is out on whether they will succeed. Since the rise of television in the early 1950s, sociologists, psychologists and advertising watch groups argue, consumers have been bombarded with stereotypical images of women that are rarely flattering. Sometimes, they argue, they're downright dangerous.
"For over 100 years, we've been taught that beauty sells products," says Joseph Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.
"Some things have changed. Now, women don't go gaga over a clean dish," he says. While many ads still focus on a woman's role in the kitchen, ads now recognize women have more complex lives. Commercials were really condescending to women in the 1960s and 1970s, says Turow, citing the 1970s National Airlines' "I'm Cheryl. Fly me" campaign. "What's improved is that women are not wedded full-time to the home. What's become more negative is the focus on women's bodies. It's so extreme it's pathological."
Messages extolling the need for women to be young and beautiful started en masse in print ads in the early 1900s, when marketers told women that using cosmetics and hair products would make them stunning. The ads coincided with the new freedoms women gained in the 1920s as more sought higher education and entered the working world. Marketers were quick to sell to this consumer group and played into their desire to be beautiful and well positioned in society. Women started to use makeup, which had previously been primarily associated with prostitution.
An ad that appeared in the magazine Beauty in 1923, for instance, promised that using the Boncilla Beautifier would make a women's complexion young. Facial lines would be smoothed away and "your face is young again—and beautiful." Promises like the one Elizabeth Arden made in a 1950 ad that ran in Vogue were common, and still are today. "Few are born beautiful … All can achieve beauty," says the copy. And ads for cosmetics and beauty products became increasingly popular on TV in the 1950s, when marketers like Procter & Gamble began to sponsor TV shows.
The premise that beauty is attainable if women buy the right product creates a sense of shame and despair, and it continues today, says Jean Kilbourne, who has been monitoring the ad industry and its gender representations for 30 years. Images of women in ads have always been unrealistic, argues Kilbourne, author of Can't Buy My Love and creator of the Killing us Softly films. Now, with digital technology, even models' "flaws" can be fixed. "They can erase any imperfections," she says.
Since Twiggy (5'7 and 91 lbs.) arrived on the scene in 1966, supermodels have been the norm in ads that promote fashion and beauty products. Her slim figure and short, boyish hair exemplified the youthfulness and freedom women experienced in the 1960s. Gone were the fuller-figure beauties like Marilyn Monroe who defined femininity in the 1950s.
Kilbourne, a former model who started policing the ad industry in 1968, says it's no wonder America has an epidemic of eating disorders as millions of young girls and women strive for the unachievable image of beauty being sold by advertisers. Kilbourne is not as worried by individual ads she deems degrading, condescending and dangerous to girls and women, and says, "I'm more interested in the cumulative impact of advertising."
One of the ads Kilbourne says belongs in the "hall of shame" is a print ad for Dior Addict 2 perfume running in the September issue of CosmoGirl! The strung-out-looking teen is a Dior "addict" who, like girls in ads for many fashion and beauty products, she says, is portrayed in an inappropriately sexual manner. "You can hardly find a teenage girl who is not concerned about her weight or how she looks," says Kilbourne. "It was not the same 30 years ago. It's so soul-destroying."
A report issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the fall of 2004 cited numerous studies that found that magazines are a major source of information for girls for advice about their personal lives. A survey conducted by The Taylor Research & Consulting Group found that 12- to 15-year-old girls look to magazines (42 percent) almost as much as their friends (45 percent) for information about beauty trends.
"The research does show that young people's sense of self and sense of societal norms are influenced by the media they consume, and that includes advertising," says Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's program for the study of entertainment media and health.
Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners in New York, doesn't see the situation as dire or Madison Avenue as evil. Too many people go too far in politicizing beauty and fashion advertising, argues Kirshenbaum. Women want to have beautiful silky hair and nice, long lashes—the dream started by Helena Rubenstein (who developed mascara and the concept of colored powder) and Estée Lauder. "What's wrong with that?" he wonders. "These are products made for women that make you look good."
Cindy Gallop, who served as U.S. chairman and CMO of Bartle Bogle Hegarty until last month, wishes advertising had as much power as some contend. To accuse it of playing a key role in distorting body image is somewhat misguided, she says. "Many forces in our culture contribute to making women feel they should be thinner and more beautiful," she says, citing the music and film industries. "I don't think advertising should be singled out as being most nefarious." While she recognizes great advertising can impact social trends, she believes many consumers don't register ad messages, and therefore are not so easily influenced. "We're not taken that seriously," she says.
According to a poll conducted for Adweek by ICR (International Communications Research), consumers agree. The national poll of 504 women and 504 men conducted from July 13 to 17 revealed that both sexes reject the premise that advertising affects the way they feel about themselves. Seventy-five percent of the respondents (about 72 percent of the women and 78 percent of the men) said advertising does not impact how they feel about themselves. Of the 23 percent who said it did, 26 percent were women and almost 20 percent were men. (See survey results on pages 38).
Would consumers rather see perfect models or flawed women in ads that pitch beauty and fashion products? "What we say we want to see may not be what we want to see," says Marian Salzman, evp and director of strategic content at JWT in New York. "We want to see an idolized version of ourselves."
Consumers don't want to see silk stockings on a leg with flaws or makeup on the face of someone who is not an ideal beauty, concurs McCann Erickson chairman Nina DiSesa. "If the advertising you see on TV is not exactly how women really are, it's because that's what women want to see," says DiSesa, former executive creative director of the New York-based agency. "The consumer gets the advertising the consumer wants. Everything is tested."
According to the poll, 62 percent of the women claim they would rather see flawed women in ads that pitch beauty and fashion products. Just 11 percent of the women said they wanted to see perfect women in those ads while 22 percent claimed it didn't matter to them. Men were more evenly split: 34 percent voted for flawed women; 30 percent for perfect women and 28 percent said it didn't matter to them.
Interestingly, just 34 percent of respondents said they had seen Dove's Real Beauty campaign while 64 percent had not. Of those who had seen the campaign, almost 80 percent (82 percent of the women and 75 percent of the men) said it was a smart way for Dove to sell its beauty care products.
Gallop agrees. "I love the campaign. It's a terrific strategic platform," she says, complimenting Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, the campaign's creator, for photographing the voluptuous women in ways that make them look visually appealing.
That's just what makes Jessica Weiner so conflicted about the campaign. At first, Weiner, author and spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, celebrated the imagery and thought it refreshing to see beautiful women well beyond the normal size of models. But "they're still telling you you're not OK with dimples and cellulite," she says. "It's a bummer that the real women we're supposed to be celebrating are doing the same thing as the skinnier models: selling the idea that you need the product to be beautiful."
Whether women in commercials are shown as life-size or bone-thin, many marketers have not moved beyond presenting them as domestic divas. According to the Adweek/ICR poll, almost 60 percent of the respondents (56 percent of the men and 64 percent of the women) said women were portrayed in unrealistic ways in ads.
Turns out, despite the contention made by Virginia Slims in the late 1960s with ads juxtaposing images of modern, stylish women with oppressed women in the 1900s, women really haven't come such a long way. Not much has changed since Jane Curtin spoofed the marine biologist mother of six in a Saturday Night Live skit in the late '70s. The den mother, church choir director and Jazzercize instructor is seen smiling into the camera as she unloads bags of groceries. "How do I do it? I take speed," she says. "Women are acknowledged as workers outside the home, as busy people, but they are still supposed to care deeply about laundry detergents," says Jennifer Scanlon, a history professor and director of women's studies at Bowdoin College in Maine.
There were early efforts to liberate women from the strictly domestic, nonsensual ways they were portrayed. Scanlon points to the first "sex appeal" campaign created by J. Walter Thompson's Helen Lansdowne Resor for Woodbury's soap in 1915. The ads featured the line "A Skin You Love to Touch" with romantic images of young women, happily receiving the admiring attention of men. But these efforts were the exception, not the rule. From 1945 into the early 1960s, there was tremendous social change going on, but it wasn't much reflected in advertising, Scanlon says.
Although Rosie the Riveter, arguably the first strong image of a woman in advertising, mobilized the female labor force during World War II, women during these years were largely portrayed as white, married and happy in their fairly limited domestic roles. Fissures of society were reflected in the 1960s. Although the publication of Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 forced the recognition of women as both independent consumers and sexually active people, they were still often shown at home like the good mothers and housewives featured in the 1950s. But during the 1960s, advertising began to cater to a wider group of women. A black woman was featured on the cover of Glamour, the first mainstream women's magazine to make that leap, says Scanlon.
The women's lib movement influenced ads in the 1970s (part of Ms. magazine's mission was to influence advertisers as well as women) and assured that the portrayal of women would reach beyond the kitchen, says Scanlon. "Nevertheless, advertisers knew that women still did the majority of household tasks, including most of the shopping, so they were reluctant to let go of the 'happy housewife' model—and you still see that model well in place today."
Advertising has historically relied on stereotypes. "When you have just 30 seconds to sell a client's products, you have to use shorthand to make sure the viewer gets what you are saying," says Gallop. But, she adds, those stereotypes don't have to be negative.
Valuing women for their youth and beauty also leads to the degradation of older women. But some experts say that's changing. Schuyler Brown, managing director of Euro RSCG's Strategic Trendspotting and Research Department, says the time has arrived where older women are portrayed as sexy, glamorous role models. "The media has forever been hateful to women of a certain age," says Brown. There's a crop of 40-, 50- and 60-year-olds showing the sensual side of aging. She points to Madonna as model for Versace and The Gap, Demi Moore modeling for Versace and dating Ashton Kutcher and Susan Sarandon as the face for Revlon. "Older women seem more interesting in photographs and in general because they suggest a certain amount of life experience and they are so comfortable in their own skin," says Brown. She applauds American Express for featuring Ellen DeGeneres in its global card brand campaign tagged "My life. My Card." Though not a traditional beauty, the funny, accomplished woman of substance is refreshing in an industry where "so many of our models and TV-ad actresses are so blatantly phony," says Brown.
How do you stop advertisers from portraying negative stereotypes of women? Influence the place where it starts: Madison Avenue. The Advertising Women of New York, established in 1912 as the first women's association in the communications industry, launched "The Good, Bad & Ugly Awards" in 1997 to honor and dishonor the best and worst portrayals of women in advertising. Other groups, such as About-Face and Media Smart Kids, exist to educate consumers and blast egregious advertising. About-Face founder Kathy Bruin started it in 1995 after seeing a nude Kate Moss reclining in a Calvin Klein Obsession ad.
The negative images of women in ads won't change until there are enough women on both the client and agency sides making decisions, says McCann's DiSesa. Although the industry has come far since Mary Wells Lawrence sat alone atop an agency in the 1960s, there still is a long way to go. "The biggest failing we have as women is we don't act enough like men. My hope is that more women act like men so they can be heard."
Goodby is more optimistic. Ad professionals have tried to move beyond the cliché of the beautiful supermom who is a successful lawyer, PTA member and paraglider who owns a Porsche, says Goodby. He recognizes how little bravery there is in the business when it comes to featuring larger, full-figured women. "Every time it happens," he says, "it gets easier to do it again."
Trendspotter Salzman of JWT goes further, saying that the Dove campaign will cause a seismic shift in the advertising landscape. She says, "We're at a place where there's no turning back."