In class, we’ve had occasion a few times in the past week to think about the double-edged nature of any message, from cholera statistics (Briggs) to Chevron’s greenwashing (Sawyer). On the one hand, we have the explicit message, which might seem to run counter to the interests of those in power: cholera statistics may run counter to the government’s messages reassuring effective containment, or Chevron’s “Human Energy” campaign might call upon corporations to exercise responsibility in their use of natural resources.
But the covert subtext of these messages actually serves to reinforce systems of inequity. Briggs makes a compelling case that cholera statistics implicitly mark statistics as the most authoritative form of information in circulation, privileging the few Venezuelan institutions capable of generating statistics. And Sawyer points out how entirely disingenuous and dangerous it is for Chevron to posit a false equivalency between the civic responsibilities of corporations (as “people”) and the civic responsibilities of ordinary consumers.
I’m thinking about this today as many of my Facebook friends, several of whom are self-described feminists, are posting a Dove commercial that is clearly designed to go viral- and it seems to be working. It shows women describing themselves to a sketch artist, and then we see contrasting sketches resulting first from their self-descriptions, and then from how others describe them, which is invariably more flattering. The tagline: “You are more beautiful than you think”.
I am immediately reminded of the point Kaw makes in her analysis of Asian-American cosmetic surgeries: the message in both of these examples is about gender, emphasizing that what should really matter for women is their physical appearance. Watch the commercial again and you’ll see how clearly this is emphasized. So if this ad is supposed to be empowering for women, it’s a kind of empowerment that clearly serves the interest of Dove. If Dove really wanted to empower women, it would argue that physical beauty is really not that important anyway- but then they wouldn’t have a way to sell their product. Or am I missing something here?
I think about this every time I see a bank advertisement announcing that they don’t care about the money, they care about you and your well-being. This is not in the nature of banks, at least not those banks who are seeking to maximize profits for their shareholders. But it is a very effective way for corporations (who are not actually human!) to package human values (altruism, compassion, environmentalism, women’s empowerment) as a way of selling themselves to consumers.
What do you think? Is Dove’s message really empowering, and I’m just cynical? This is the new mode of advertising, and in many ways I find it far more insidious than the overt commercials we’re used to. For example, there’s a recent, feel-good Coke commercial designed for viral consumption that I also find incredibly sinister, but for other reasons.