Beauty Ads Are A Pain

Last fall, Dove unleashed “Evolution” on an unsuspecting world. A tiny-budget viral video from Ogilvy Canada, it showed a “normal” young woman (the art director’s girlfriend) being transformed into a billboard beauty, complete with digitally lengthened neck, and had the sort of revolutionary effect on advertising that The Beatles had on music(“The Girl With the Photoshopped Eyes”).

It took the 100-year-old news that the beauty business is all about artifice, and presented it in such a clear, visual and high-tech way that it went on to receive nearly 4 million Web hits and won the Grand Prix at Cannes, a first for work that originated on the Internet. For its perfect simplicity and power, it also was pretty much worshiped within the industry.

Obviously, “Evolution” is a ridiculously tough act to follow. With “Onslaught,” I’d say that Dove and its agency have succeeded, although in a more measured way. I like the message: It is clever, artful and technically beautiful. It’s just that from the get-go, “Onslaught” is harder to love.

Whereas “Evolution” has an easy-to-follow, linear story line based on a transformation that occurs “right before our very eyes,” “Onslaught” has a far more difficult, diffuse story to tell. The video barrels through a fictional barrage of the thousands of beauty images women receive daily.

We start with a reverent, almost hypnotic moment of a red-headed 7-year-old staring into the camera. She is a portrait of all that is innocent and pure. And then the tunneling begins. “Here it comes,” the refrain from “La Breeze” by the English group Simian, starts out sweetly Beatles-like and builds to something ominous and frenetic: “Here it comes. La breeze will blow away all your reason…” It’s a perfect match for the visuals: In the beginning, the images are familiar and benign enough—a billboard for skin cream, a mannequin in a store window. It builds to far more sinister expressions of the quest for physical perfection, including the visual diary of a yo-yo dieter and a stream of convincingly Nip/Tuck-ish images of needles and lipo. It’s a technical knockout: Despite the speed of the imagery, there’s no need for Dramamine. It also smartly mirrors the cumulative effect of a lifetime of advertising images on a woman’s self-esteem.

I give the creators props for not shying away from the uglier end result of such messages. But watching a split-second vision of a woman purging into a toilet is tough.

Also different from “Evolution” is that this spot voices the false promises of “thinner, lighter, softer, tighter.” And that’s a small problem: While the spot promotes only the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, it also sells us on the brand in general. And this brand, part of Unilever, makes products that offer some lighter, brighter, tighter, firmer claims of their own.

I applaud the agency for keeping a level playing field by subverting mainly beauty brand claims. Yet given the overall picture, it’s sort of old fashioned and simplistic to blame it all on advertising. The biggest problem these days is the combination of technology and celebrity culture: Now everyone wants a makeover and a red-carpet moment.

The biggest offender is reality TV, the gateway drug for plastic surgery. Last week’s cover of Us Weekly featured 21-year-old Heidi Montag (of MTV’s The Hills) talking about her “Revenge Plastic Surgery.” Apparently, people always told her she had a “big nose,” and boys called her “flat,” she revealed. Now with a smaller nose and “ample bosom,” as the magazine puts it, she says, “I really do feel like a woman.”

But back to Dove. The Dove Self-Esteem Fund runs workshops for girls and distributes pamphlets to schools and groups; now it is partnering with the Step Up Women’s Network to “give girls a reality check about what images are real vs. Hollywood magic.” Several celebrities are reportedly volunteering for workshops, but no names have been offered. Which leads me to the third reason why this is a tougher message to sell: The only celebrity I can think of who has truly come clean about aging and cosmetic surgery is Jamie Lee Curtis, and that’s why she now writes children’s books.

The spot ends with “Talk to your daughter before the industry does” over a slow-motion shot of schoolgirls crossing the street. Our red-head follows, slightly out of step with the pack—a clever touch. Still, it’s disturbing: The implication is that she could be as damaged by the relentless and unrealistic imagery hurled at her as by a speeding truck.

So hats off to Dove for having the chutzpa to manipulate the manipulators. There are very few parents of girls who won’t be grateful for the spot. But given that the “Onslaught” message is so much stronger than “True Colors,” which ran on the Super Bowl, why not give it more media weight? No matter how many hits it receives on the Internet, “Onslaught” is a mini course in media studies that should be seen by as many girls and women as possible, on a big TV screen, innocent cheek by surgically tucked jowl, to compare and contrast with all the stuff it attacks.