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5 Things Unilever Could Do to Actually Help Women Instead of Making More Insipid ‘Real Beauty’ Videos

Dove parent company Unilever has made yet another condescending 'viral video' based on the idea that grown women are as gullible and as obsessed with their looks as 7th graders. Women would find concrete actions on issues like climate change, chemicals in beauty products, and corporate responsibility far more inspiring than emotionally manipulative montages.
Dove beauty

Dove parent company Unilever has made yet another condescending video based on the idea that grown women are as gullible and as obsessed with their looks as 7th graders (and a lot of 7th grade girls would be as insulted by this video as I am).

In interviews with a psychologist, supposedly real women and not actors voice their insecurities with the barely restrained hysteria we’ve come to expect from a Dove Real Beauty video, saying things like, “I almost kind of avoid mirrors lately, because I’ve been a little uncomfortable with things,” and, “If I was more confident, I’d have the ability to like, approach a guy, maybe.”

All of the kind-of-sad-sounding participants are asked to test a revolutionary new product, RB-X, a patch mysteriously described only as “developed to enhance the way women perceive their own beauty.”

In addition to wearing the patch 12 hours a day, the women were required to keep daily video diaries in which they detailed their feelings. Day 1 predictably elicited gripes that nothing had changed; they all still felt sad and unattractive.

But by Day 4, one (frankly, gorgeous) young woman says, “One of my co-workers said I look really pretty today, and that was really cool.” Another woman enthuses that she actually chose to wear something that exposed her arms, which is remarkable since she’s super-insecure about her arms. Other inexplicable positive reports describe such earth-shattering strides as smiling at a stranger and shopping for a dress.

The women show up for their follow-up interviews in more brightly colored clothes than before and less shrouded by scarves and face-obscuring hairstyles as they enthuse about the life-changing experience of RB-X.

“I’ve definitely opened up something inside me to make me feel this great,” one says.

Then the lady asks them all if they want to know what’s in the patch, and of course they all do. They turn over the patch label as instructed to see the word “nothing.” They all laugh as though being duped on camera is a delightful experience.

And of course, the tears start rolling.

“I was really expecting there to be something in it,” one says.

Yeah? Like what, seriously? What magical beautifying mushroom growing out of a clump of unicorn dung would a grown woman conceivably expect to be absorbed into her skin to such miraculous effect?

As annoying and insulting as this video is, it appears, at least, that more women are starting to recognize the Real Beauty campaign for the pandering tripe that it is. This latest effort is drawing some criticism, unlike that dumb police sketch artist one that according to at least one source is the fourth most-viewed online video of all time.

But still – every time Dove spews one of these stupid things, women will share it on Facebook and argue with anyone who criticizes it, insisting that we all “need this message,” and trumpet the importance of reiterating the idea that beauty is about how you feel, not how you look.

I am completely on board with the idea that self-confidence plays a big role in how attractive we appear to others. And I even concede that given how much women are bombarded with objectified, sexualized media images of unattainable ideals, many of us can stand to be reminded that beauty comes from within.

But I also think we need to consider the source of such a message.

Before we get teary and overly appreciative of the Real Beauty campaign, let’s remember that as a multinational corporation, Unilever has tremendous power to institute actual life-changing benefits to women. But these manipulative videos are produced to make us choose Dove products over other products – and that’s it.

It’s also offensive that this campaign subtly blames women for their insecurities and ignores its own role in helping create them. The message seems to be, “We don’t need to make better products or change our advertising; it’s you who needs to change your thinking.”

Why attack Unilever, a company that consistently garners headlines for its commitment to sustainability and humanitarian efforts?

It’s true that Unilever has professed a commitment to urging government to address climate change, but CEO Paul Polman is pretty candid about his nonaltruistic reasons for doing so. In a recent speech at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, he said:

“This is no longer just a moral case but an economic one. When I say that we can't afford not to act, I mean it literally.

…In the last decade, the world spent $2.7 trillion more on natural disasters than usual. The OECD predicts that, by 2050, over $45 trillion of assets could be at risk. Accenture found that significant supply chain disruptions can cut the share price of impacted companies by 7 percent, whilst KPMG estimates that the total profit of the food industry is at risk by 2030.”

And some of this recent “action” might be little more than symbolic. The Guardian’s Marc Gunther reported Friday that “Sprint and Starbucks have both signed the Climate Declaration, joining such companies as eBay, Gap, GM, Intel, Microsoft, Nestle and Unilever. But the declaration is an anodyne call for a ‘coordinated effort to combat climate change,’ without specifying what that effort will entail. An insider described it to me as ‘a gateway drug,’ designed to start a conversation that will progress as momentum builds.

"Similarly, this week's lobbying effort focused not on an economy-wide program to curb climate pollution but on an obscure piece of legislation known as the Master Limited Partnership Parity Act, which is intended to lower the cost of financing clean energy.”

Unilever is incredibly adept at publicizing its humanitarian initiatives, such as the “Help a Child Reach 5” campaign in India that encourages hand washing to help reduce rates of diarrhea– with its Lifebuoy soap. Another effort that is indeed helpful but also obviously self-serving is Project Shakti, an entrepreneurial nonprofit supported by Hindustan Unilever that helps women push Unilever products in rural markets previously untapped by the company.

“Launched in 2001, the initiative, Project Shakti, helped HUL reach the so-called media-dark regions by turning rural women into direct-to-home distributors of its mass-market products,” reported The Economic Times in 2009. “With emerging markets contributing roughly 44 percent to global revenues, Unilever—a Fortune 500 foods, home and personal care product giant with operations in about 100 countries—is betting on Project Shakti to reach to the bottom of the pyramid in Asian, African and Latin American markets.

“The rural micro-enterprise has helped … Hindustan Unilever to push growth rates in several categories such as personal wash, fabric wash, shampoos, oral care and skin care. Brands like Annapurna, Lux, Lifebuoy, Breeze, Wheel, Fair & Lovely, Lakme, Ponds, Clinic Plus and Pepsodent have sold good numbers in smaller markets, company sources said. Overall, around 50 percent of HUL's revenues came from the rural markets in India.”

Obviously, it’s much more rare that change occurs as the result of altruism; “What’s in it for me?” is pretty much the guiding principle of society, not just for corporations. But it galls me that Unilever is so often applauded for its commitment to “sustainable growth,” a notion that is absolutely absurd. Corporations can’t produce the continual increase in profits expected of them without blazing through more natural resources and exploiting an ever-growing workforce. Reconciling profit maximization with environmental preservation just isn’t possible. The best Unilever can profess to do is mitigate the harm it does to people and the Earth; purporting anything beyond that is disingenuous.

George Monbiot expressed a similar sentiment in an editorial last week for The Guardian, in which he wrote, “[Unilever’s] efforts to reduce its own use of energy and water and its production of waste, and to project these changes beyond its own walls, look credible and impressive. Sometimes its initiatives look to me like self-serving bullshit.

…As the development writer Lou Pingeot points out, their analysis of the world’s problems is partial and self-serving, casting corporations as the saviours of the world’s people, but never mentioning their role in causing many of the problems (financial crisis, land grabbing, tax loss, obesity, malnutrition, climate change, habitat destruction, poverty, insecurity) they claim to address. Most of their proposed solutions either require passivity from governments (poverty will be solved by wealth trickling down through a growing economy) or the creation of a more friendly environment for business.”

Here, though, are some things I think Unilever can do, particularly for the women it insists it’s trying to uplift:

1. Stop pushing skin-lightening products in India.
Brown is beautiful, right? Not according to Unilever, which pushes its Fair & Lovely skin-lightening line of products to women in India. “Real beauty,” my ass.

2. Stop selling gross diet-powder meal replacements.
Unilever bought Slim-Fast in 2000 and according to reports early this year, it's considering selling it. But not because it could be perceived as hypocritical for a corporation with such a huge decade-long “real beauty” campaign that strives to bolster women’s self-esteem to sell a diet aid. No, it’s because telling people to replace meals with a cup of powder-water masquerading as a shake has simply not proved to be enough of a cash cow for Unilever:

According to Reuters, “The Anglo-Dutch maker of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Dove soap is in the process of reviewing all its underperforming assets and analysts have long pegged Slim-Fast as a candidate for disposal. Bernstein Research estimated late last year that Slim-Fast had 2012 sales of 300 million euros ($406.3 million), 34 percent lower than when Unilever agreed to buy the business in 2000 for $2.3 billion.”

3. Stop being hypocrites and objectifying women and (literally) making them cartoons.
Unilever actually made a line of Axe products for women called “Anarchy,” the ads of which objectify women just as much as the products marketed to men.

Commenting on the marketing campaign, a representative for the British firm that created it said, “While over the last decade the women in Axe ads who throw themselves at men have consistently been stunning, the men have tended to be more average-looking, the message to male consumers being that the fragrances would attract women who would otherwise be out of their league. In the new commercials, the actresses are no less attractive, but are not sold so short: some male actors have the chiseled features of GQ models.

"‘Girls in Axe advertising will always be a little better-looking than the guys, but the question is to what degree,’ said Mr. Kolbusz, of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, adding that the more conventionally handsome actors in the Anarchy ads will still appeal to typical Axe users. 'The guys can look a little more aspirational in the lead roles without the average guy feeling threatened,' Mr. Kolbusz said."

Because even in ads targeted to women, it’s all about the male ego.

And here, some more realistic body images for women:

Pretty empowering, eh?

4. Better monitor working conditions for women that pick tea leaves for you in India and Kenya.
Nonprofit SOMO interviewed 100 workers on eight Unilever tea plantations (seven in India, one in Kenya) about their working conditions in a 2011 report on the impact of Rainforest Alliance certification. SOMO concluded, in part, “On all the RA certified estates in India there were issues with wages either including too few benefits or partly being paid in kind and not in cash. Also women workers are being discriminated against (promotion, benefits), many casual workers remain permanently casual and workers are applying pesticides without protective gear. Moreover, most of these issues constitute violations of Indian labour legislation and ILO standards as well as Unilever’s own standards for suppliers. All of them are violations of RA standards and should lead to withdrawal of RA certification.”

SOMO’s report also found that the audits were found to be “thoroughly manipulated (by which producers ensured that the auditors received a flawed and badly informed view of the actual living and working conditions of workers), to be too shallow (not picking up many issues raised in this study) and being biased (centered only on the industry or dominant trade union perspective and apparently not looking further).

“In addition it was noted that at least in Kenya there is a fundamental lack of trust and confidence amongst workers to speak openly and freely to auditors (and other authorities for that matter). Casuals are entitled to less benefits and the job insecurity that comes with it creates a climate that is conducive to favouritism, with elements such as bribery, sexual harassment, ethnic and gender discrimination.”

Workers said that conditions were not demonstrably different after RA certification and that they were required to pay union dues despite not knowing what they were for and not feeling represented by the organization. Women reported being forced to take pregnancy tests and refused employment if the tests were positive.

Some women also reported that they were refused employment unless they had sex with supervisors and had to bribe supervisors to keep their jobs.

In its closing comments, SOMO said, “The most relevant comments by Unilever and RA to the findings presented in the chapters above can broadly be categorised as 'true, but could find no evidence'; 'true, but there is no problem'; 'no comment' and 'not true.'" Unilever later issued a more committed-sounding response to shareholders on its corporate site, however. It’s clear that company representatives will need to rigorously follow up to see that working conditions for tea plantation employees live up the RA and Unilever’s own corporate labor standards.

5. Remove hormone-disrupting chemicals from your products.
Dove’s pro-age line, Dove Cream Oil Shea Butter Intensive body lotion and Dove Hair Therapy line contain propylparaben, a hormone disruptor suspected of contributing to developmental and reproductive toxicity, and many of its other products contain BHT (a suspected carcinogen), formaldehyde and fragrance, which are suspected allergens and sources of organ system toxicity.

Thanks for the sappy platitudes, Dove, but women would find some of these concrete actions much more inspiring.