When “She” is in the middle of it all: 3 ads that changed the narrative

Dove Real Beauty

Imagine the possibilities, like a girl coz’ that’s the real beauty of it all! From Dove Real Beauty to Like a Girl, gender equality in advertising has revolutionized over the years. 

There are several ad campaigns that make an impact, but there are some that go beyond the impact. In a world where few brands affirm or embrace the concept of feminism, there are a few brands that have consciously or unconsciously jumped onto the bandwagon.

In times that have seen one of the most significant step up in feminism, via the 2017 Women’s Marches that went on to engulf huge chunks of the world, including Washington, New York, London, Melbourne, Toronto amongst many other cities, it’s the perfect time to re-look at some of the ad campaigns that inadvertently contributed to the debate.

Always: Like A Girl

It was a campaign that began in June 2014 but catapulted when it captured a slot at the Super Bowl 2015. It revolved around the question, “When did doing something ‘like a girl’ become an insult?” A set of young adults were asked to show what they understood by the phrase run/fight/throw “like a girl”. Inadvertently, even the girls showed running/throwing/fighting in exaggerated, flippant and caricatured moves. When the same set of actions were enacted by little girls they showcased natural, un-emphasized and confident versions of the acts.

What changed between the two narratives? It opened up the space for debating the very idea of negative affirmation of something that is far from anything adverse. And where was the brand plug-in? I guess in the positioning itself. The key positioning being “a girl’s confidence plummets at puberty” and that the brand supports her journey at this crucial period of uncertainty and under-confidence.

Though some like Elissa Stein, co-author of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, argued that the spot never comes down to discussing menstruation and that most feminine hygiene care brands overwhelmingly “sell pads and tampons by getting women to feel like periods are shameful, embarrassing and dirty episodes”.

(Why That ‘Like

A Girl’ Super Bowl Ad Was So Groundbreaking) But that’s a debate for another day. In the meanwhile, the #LikeAGirl campaign definitely managed to engage with a diverse audience, both primary and secondary. The follow up

Always #LikeAGirl – Unstoppable couldn’t recreate the effect, but affirmed the brand’s positioning.

Dove: Real Beauty

The Dove Real Beauty campaign began with billboards placed at traffic intersections in Canada, asking people to engage with the ads via text-based votes. The billboards depicted women of different shapes, sizes and look and engaged with simple questions- fit or fat, grey or gorgeous, wrinkled or wonderful – goading consumers to join the “beauty debate”. But what propelled the campaign into the mainstream, was the video “Evolution”. It showed the transition of an everyday relatable woman into a glamorous breathtaking face on a massive billboard.

The transition was made through the use of excessive beauty products and photoshop. The talking point was whether
we are okay with selling this version of “beauty” to people? The question was about internalizing the notion of beauty. The Dove Real Beauty sketches, was a fascinating social experiment on the “perception of beauty.” A selected few women were asked to describe themselves to a forensic sketch artist. It was followed by a second set of sketches of the same women based on descriptions provided by strangers, who had interacted with them earlier in the day. When the women saw the 2 versions of their self portrait, hanging side by side, it was a stunning revelation, both to them and the audience.

The sketches based on the self-description came with harsher and rougher contours while the sketches based on the descriptions given by the strangers, depicted a friendlier and softer perception. It ended with the thought – you are more beautiful than you think.

The campaign had several follow-ups including the Dove selfie and the Dove Mannequin Challenge. It also faced criticism on the grounds that the parent company Unilever was the promoter of the same orthodox concept of beauty, as in the Axe & Fair & Lovely ads, that it claimed to be challenging, as in the Dove ads.

The irony wasn’t lost on all. Jean Kilbourne, the maker of the documentary – Killing Them Softly, argues that though it’s a “a good reason to go after Unilever, or to go after Axe,” she told The Huffington Post – “but don’t think the people at Dove have much control over that.” Critics also argue that some of Dove products including cellulite firming cream, cashes on the body conscious anxiety amongst women. Nevertheless, Dove created a significant space in the way the personal care industry advertises “beauty” to its consumers.

Barbie: Imagine The Possibilities

Barbie has had a long history of facing criticism on account of its orthodox and stringent version of “female beauty and body.” The 1992 Teen Talk Barbie is a case in point. The talking Barbies voiced phrases such as “Will we ever have enough clothes?”, “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”,”Want to go shopping?”, “Okay, meet me at the mall”, “and the infamous – “Math class is tough”. The dolls were at the center of a storm, around how the phrases proved manipulative, prejudiced and impressionable. The “Math Class is tough” doll proved to be the most contested and debated.

When Mattel came out with its proposition – Imagine the possibilities, it showed little girls in “imagined places”. A little girl walks inside a college classroom as a Professor, on the football field as a coach, at a vet’s office as a veterinary doctor, at the airport as a businesswoman and at a museum as a tour guide. While the audience is left wondering about what’s going on and our amused reactions mimics that of the adults in the film – it all clears up in the end. The little girls are shown in their playroom, playing with their barbies and imagining the different worlds.

Hence, the proposition – when your girl plays with a barbie, she is imagining possibilities. It taps into the very base idea that “when kids play, their imaginations are also at play.” It was a crucial cultural insight. The ad was a spin on barbie’s reputation as distorting a girl’s vision of beauty and aspirations. Rather Mattel’s You Can Be Anything, pushed forwards the idea that Barbie allows a little girl to think beyond and to imagine different possibilities. It definitely shook up the brand image, that it had been stuck with for years. The spot was targeted at adults. As Will Burns explains, “I can almost hear parents (like me) thinking, “Oh, that’s how she plays with Barbie?” Barbie has been widening its canvas in the past years. Did it put a spin on the conversation? Yes. Did it negate all the criticism coming Barbie’s way? No.

There are a few ads that have made a difference. There are several other regional creative articulations that have made similar impacts. But this does go to show that ads and narratives affect each other in a significant way, even though it may not be immediately apparent.


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