Drawing circles

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There are things in this world I would like to draw a circle around. Things, or more accurately experiences, that I value so much that I want a special place for them, somewhere safe where they cannot be touched by what we so quaintly refer to as ‘the market’.  Experiences such as beauty, love and freedom.

If you were around in the 70s you may still remember a time when the products we were being seduced to buy actually featured in the advert. I have included one for your amusement.


While Jockey was promising to ‘build a great looking wardrobe from the inside out’, Tide was giving you ‘a fresh clean wash’ and Dove ‘was the best thing that happened to [your] face’. It’s enough to make you feel nostalgic for a time when ads still spoke about the stuff they were trying to sell, rather than claiming that we were ‘worth it’ or wanting to make us part of the ‘Coca Cola family’.

We have long since moved on from this more straightforward, though no less insincere, approach.

By the 80s many of us were enjoying a pretty reasonable, if not already saturated, level of material prosperity. Marketing executives, aided by consumer psychologists, had to work overtime to sell us ever more stuff we didn’t need. They moved from selling products to selling lifestyles, tapping into our fundamental need for identity and belonging, and using storytelling to fashion a ‘mythology’ of material objects, that by their magic would render us powerful and desirable. Our hyper-individualised egos lapped up the goodies.

The lifestyle trend in marketing is here to stay, but for those who have the lifestyle it is no longer so potent. To keep growing, companies have to keep selling and a richer marketing seam has to be mined. That new seam is our emotional wellbeing.

In a TED talk called ‘The Sexy Lie’, Caroline Heldman discusses the impact of the ever increasing sexual objectification of women. She explains how women in our culture self-objectify, engaging in an activity called ‘body monitoring’ on average every 30 seconds. “The more we think of ourselves and internalise this idea of being sex objects, the higher our rates of depression.” Self-objectification is also linked to eating disorders, depressed cognitive functioning, sexual dysfunction and lower self-esteem. Surrounded by so many objectifying images of women, we spend (read: waste) valuable time preening and worrying about our looks, when we could be achieving higher levels of education, entering the political arena and making a greater impact on the social and economic landscape.

If you consider yourself a citizen and member of your community this kind of news might spur you to act on behalf of those you love and create a world that empowers women to reach their potential. Who doesn’t want their wife, daughter, niece, mother, aunt, granny to see herself as a beautiful, valued person and do well in life regardless of her age, race or physical appearance?

However, if you are a business person, this kind of information reads as yet another marketing opportunity. In marketing terms sexual objectification of women and the ensuing lack of self-worth are not injustices to be alleviated, but lucrative gaps to be exploited.

Inspired by similar findings, Dove is now no longer merely a moisturizer that ‘makes your skin so pretty’. In 2004 the company launched its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ a set of ads highlighting the issue of women’s self-image. In their own words:

“The Dove® brand is rooted in listening to women. Based on the findings of a major global study, The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global Report, Dove® launched the Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. The campaign started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty after the study proved the hypothesis that the definition of beauty had become limiting and unattainable. Among the study’s findings was the statistic that only 2% of women around the world would describe themselves as beautiful. Since 2004, Dove® has employed various communications vehicles to challenge beauty stereotypes and invite women to join a discussion about beauty. In 2010, Dove® evolved the campaign and launched an unprecedented effort to make beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety, with the Dove® Movement for Self-Esteem.

Dove are not alone in their ‘concern’ for our poor self-esteem. More recently ads for the company Always – which in case you didn’t know sells tampons and sanitary pads – have started exploring the negative impact of the phrase ‘like a girl’. Their ‘social experiment’ shows girls and women realising how much they have internalised images of girls as clumsy and incapable. At the end of the clip these fresh faced females of different ages and ethnicity, come to the profound realisation that ‘like a girl’, as one of the interviewees states, “is not something I should be ashamed of”.

In a world saturated with advertising and promotions, (we are now seeing on average 5000 ads a day) new marketing tactics have to be as invisible as possible. Companies like Dove and Always want you to forget that you are watching an ad and that the aim of advertising is to increase sales. They want you to believe that they are on your side, that they understand what women are going through and that they are doing all this because they really, really care. These brands attempt to set themselves up as benevolent campaigners for a more just world, where women can be their real selves.

This message seems to appeal to many women, judging from the way these ads go viral on the internet, accompanied by comments such as ‘@Always is aiming to change the way people view gender’ and ‘@Always be the change you wanna see in the world’ or ‘An inspiring question from #Dove: Love yourself and treat yourself with love!’ You would be forgiven for thinking that these campaigns were our allies in women’s struggle to be seen as real people, rather than cynical marketing ploys. It is easy to forget that Unilever, Dove’s parent company, also owns Slim-fast and Axe deodorant, whose ads are unashamedly sexist and objectifying.

In her TED talk Caroline Heldman also tells us that self-objectification decreases our political efficacy. Is this the reason we accept the attempts of brands such as Dove and Always to put themselves forward as political actors on our behalf, even as they are some of the cultivators and benefactors of our oppression? Is this how political agency becomes usurped by business interests? Is this how the boardroom comes to masquerade as the agora?

Trusting that these corporations are willing and able to cure, or even truly engage with, the ills their businesses inflict on us in the first place, is like waking from a bad dream and going to get a drink of water, only to find Freddy Krueger in your kitchen.

It is becoming ever clearer that to ensure their survival in a neo-liberal capitalist economy, corporations have to commodify everything we hold dear, exploiting every single human experience. Our dreams, our grief, our creative imaginings, our political passions, all become appropriated in the corporate matrix, while they try to convince us that they have our wellbeing at heart.

And in this way they perpetuate the most insidious lie of all: that in a society run by corporate ideology we can be truly free and truly loved.

I will continue to draw my circle, against all the odds.


You can watch The Sexy Lie here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMS4VJKekW8&feature=kp

Always Like A Girl campaign http://www.always.com/en-us/likeagirl.aspx

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty http://www.dove.us/Social-Mission/campaign-for-real-beauty.aspx

Advertising for Axe deodorant http://thisisnotadvertising.wordpress.com/2011/11/07/15-years-of-axe-effect-the-worlds-most-sexist-advertising-campaign/




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Yes, indeed, you have nailed the lie of the “benevolent campaigner”. However, there is another layer to this: the ads work. For instance, I too watched the Always video. Although I found the second half over-sentimentalised, the first half – vividly portraying how running “like a girl” is an insult that effectively inhibits women – exerted a genuine liberating effect on me. I actually started to do a bit of running! Confusing or what?!

    I also believe (to add another layer) that people involved in creating such campaigns may also be genuinely moved by the messages, and believe in them. So, although the driver is commercial, the messages may be game-changers…Yes, this is confusing which is why I welcome your blog post. So, yes, please, Inez: continue to draw your circle, against all odds.

    1. Inez Aponte says:

      Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. It is terribly confusing. I agree with you that these ads are moving. They move me deeply because they speak of the things I hold dear, but that is exactly why I feel the need to protect these things from the grubby claws of capitalism. And yes, the sincere feelings of the makers of these messages are equally appropriated. I don’t see it as a matter of tracing the blame up to the top, where we will find the fat cat laughing into his bourbon. It is more likely that most people genuinely believe that this is empowering, in the same way as ‘The Sexy Lie’. So many of my intelligent friends send me these ads with sincere intention, without questioning the very nature of them. The web is very sticky!

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