The most annoying thing about Dove’s “Real” Beauty Sketches

By now, you’ve seen — or at least heard about — the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ campaign that made the rounds a few weeks ago. In case you didn’t, the following video is what the rest of this post is about, so check it:

[Editor’s note: above is the full, six-minute version. There is also a three-minute version, with over ten times as many hits as of the time of this writing. I included the six-minute version for the sake of completeness.]

After watching the video for the first time last Thursday [it got lost in a sea of open tabs/general apathy], I knew something about the ad bothered me. I did a few googles to see if anyone had quite put a finger on what rubbed me the wrong way, and when they turned up nothing, I decided to write it up myself. And so, I proudly present my personal contribution to a long line of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ campaign critics.

To get you caught up, here’s a distilled sample of what other people didn’t like about it [every word in that sentence links to a different critical article]:

  1. Everybody in the ad is white and young and thin (and almost everybody’s blonde). This reinforces a narrow, racialist conception of beauty.
  2. The ad implies that the following adjectives carry negative implications: “fat, rounder face, freckles, fatter, starting to get crows feet, moles, scars.” This reinforces a narrow, cultural conception of beauty.
  3. The ad implies that women are not valuable without beauty.
  4. Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns Axe, which produces both the sexiest and the sexistest ads on television. Oh, and Unilever produces skin-lightening cream, which is also pretty damn racist.
  5. The ad portrays women as their own worst enemies — rather than simply victims of a sexist society.
  6. Women don’t want to be portrayed as victims of anyone — it’s patronizing.
  7. The ad is hypocritical because it seeks to celebrate ordinary women while trying to sell soap alleged to help them look better.
  8. The sketch artist was a man.
  9. The ad distorts the meaning of the word beautiful by conflating it with attractiveness.
  10. Direct quote: “We are not actually supposed to think we’re beautiful. That would be weird and vain and arrogant.”
  11. No one should care about physical appearance at all.

I’m not going to go into detail over which of these arguments overlap, which contradict one other, or which articles raise which complaints [no single article included more than five of the above, which is why I didn’t try to match up arguments to specific articles] and what those variables might say about their authors — though those would all be fascinating topics for further exploration. I’m sure at least some — if not all — of the above is totally valid,  but I want to approach this campaign from a slightly different perspective: science.

That’s certainly how the campaign’s creators want you to think about it. Here’s how the [abridged, i.e. three-minute version] video describes the process of creating the original sketches:

Gil: I’m a forensic artist, worked for the San Jose Police Department from 1995 to 2011.
Volunteer #1: I showed up to a place I’ve never been and there was a guy with a drafting board.
Volunteer #2: We couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see us.
[…]
Volunteer #1: I didn’t know what he was doing, but then I could tell after several questions that he was drawing me.
[…]
[…]
[…]
Gil: Once I get a sketch, I say “thank you very much” and then they leave. I don’t see them.

If Dove had its way, viewers would watch this video and — without thinking too hard — easily come away thinking they’d just seen a double-blind, controlled scientific experiment. The hypothesis: women have low opinions of their own appearance. The method: have women describe themselves to a sketch artist who cannot see them. The control: have other women describe those first women to the same sketch artist. Genius. Compare the results. Voila. We’re ready to publish in Nature.

Need more proof than the ad’s script? Check out Dove’s own description of the video [emphasis added]:

Women are their own worst beauty critics. Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful. At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety. So, we decided to conduct a compelling social experiment that explores how women view their own beauty in contrast to what others see.

And while the criticism to follow may be too obvious for words, note that in the meantime, respected, actual media outlets have been falling for this narrative [emphasis, again, added]:

Each woman was asked before the social experiment to spend some one-on-one time with one of the other participants. – TIME

Dove Experiment Aims to Change the Way You See Yourself. – Mashable

The Dove “Real Beauty Sketches” experiment aims to make women see themselves more positively. – International Business Times

Sketch Artist Experiment Proves Women Are More Beautiful Than They Think – Buzzfeed

OK, so maybe not every one of those media outlets qualifies as ‘respected’, but the point is this: someone is falling for it. And people are clicking on it. And there’s no excuse for that.

Approaching the video as a science experiment is certainly an attractive option. It would mean, among other things, that the process you just watched is repeatable. It would mean you are, just maybe, more beautiful than you think you are. But just because that belief would be attractive doesn’t mean it’s not patently ridiculous.

First of all, we talkin about an ad. It’s been highly edited. Forget “highly edited” — it’s been edited. Dove chose which women to draw. Dove chose which drawings to show — Zamora could have drawn literally 100 pairs of sketches — and if Dove showed you the seven that turned out like it hoped and burned the rest, you’d be never the wiser [assuming they were smart enough to force participants to sign non-disclosure agreements].

And just like Reinhart and Rogoff learned the hard way a few weeks ago, it doesn’t count as science when you selectively design the contours of the data you present — even dismal science.

As I said, all this should be relatively uncontroversial, and perhaps too obvious for words. But please forgive me as I take this path just one step further: even if Dove showed you the entire process from start to finish, and could prove it had practiced no selection bias on which women it picked off the street, nor on which results it presented, the experiment still does not qualify as science because it was, in fact, anything but double-blind.

Sure, Zamora couldn’t see the women he was drawing [and they couldn’t see him], and yes, he’s a highly-trained professional who knows exactly what he’s doing — Stop. Right there. That’s the problem: he knows exactly what he’s doing.

How Zamora chooses to draw the volunteers is entirely within his control. Dove hired him to do a specific job — and he’s not an idiot: even if he didn’t know what was up before the first pair of women sat down, he surely figured it out before the second. He might know that when a woman is describing herself to him, his job is to make her look like a Wild Thing — and he might also know, by extension, that when a woman is describing someone else, the drawing is supposed to turned out like a Disney princess [such as Pocahontas, who is both a wild thing and the best Disney princess of all time, and not only because she is the most beautiful because that would be shallow, if at least not racialist]. He might not — but you’ll never know, and he has an incentive to never ever ever ever tell (the truth). His inner cognitive process is a black box that this experiment is not at all designed to crack.

And that matters — a lot. The medium matters — and the medium here is an artist Dove is paying to produce a certain outcome. The point of an experiment is find the end point. The point of this “experiment” was to reach a predetermined end point someone else decided on — meanwhile Zamora’s paycheck depends on reaching that outcome, and better, Dove exercises complete control over the process and presentation. It’s basically just the Pepsi challenge, but with even less science and even more illusion [I swear, there are no good clips on Youtube].

Now, imagine a slightly different experiment: two women Zamora can’t see feed him nearly identical descriptions, their content varying in no significant way, each woman listing the exact same set of features, in the same order, in the same tone, and so on. The only difference: one speaks in the first-person, the other in the third. I would not be the least bit surprised to see the first-person description-based drawing turn out with significantly more shading, saggier eyes, shaggier air, and otherwise unattractive (“unattractive”?) features. And even though that exercise would hardly rise to the level of “experiment”, at least you’d have introduced some control/a baseline against which to measure all the other drawings. As it stands, the only control you see anywhere in this study was exercised by Dove.

Listen, I’m not here to pass judgment on the campaign or anyone who enjoyed it. You’ve seen the video, you’ve encountered some of the criticism I outlined above, here if not elsewhere. You’re able to think for yourself. If you want to ignore the reasons not everyone is a fan, shed a tear or two, look in a mirror and feel empowered — by God, go ahead and do that. But just know that what you’re watching is artificial, an advertisement designed to evoke that response, and bears about as much relation to reality as another popular video of somewhat similar length [abridged version here because Disney wants you to pay $2 to watch the full thing]:

And Dove, one last suggestion (also, first suggestion): if you really wanted women to think they’re more attractive than they do right now, you should switch from selling soap to selling some beer and a mirror.

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