Beauty as Propaganda

Dove's real beauty campaign

Dove’s real beauty campaign

As Thursday approaches my excitement grows: I have the honor to teach a course in propaganda alongside my usual menu of theory and research classes.

We juicily extract the essences of meaning from campaigns intended to sway your thoughts, part you from your cash, and cream your body with potions.

Yesterday we discussed a marketing campaign that has captured the attention of writers from The Wall Street Journal to The Huffington Post, plus a boatload of bloggers, who wax on mightily about beauty. And propaganda.

In mid-April, Dove soap unveiled a new segment of its campaign to shift attitudes about beauty.

The campaign kicked off with a video-short launched on Facebook and Youtube that, to date, has been watched more than 26 million times.

I repeat: 26 million times. That’s the equivalent of the population of Texas.

Marketers at Dove hit the mother lode.

The well-executed video-short looks like a documentary rather than an ad.

In the video a group of real women–not models or actors—speak with an artist—Gil Zamora–schooled in forensic science who sketches their portraits based solely on the women’s descriptions of themselves—Zamora doesn’t see their faces.

The artist then chats with folks who have just met the women—they don’t know them intimately—and they also offer up descriptions of the women.

Zamora draws a second portrait based on the strangers’ descriptions.

The video climax shows the reactions from the women when they see their portraits side-by-side in a sunny San Francisco loft.

The portraits based on narratives of themselves show mean, brow-furrowed and light-lipped women.

In contrast, the strangers’ descriptions reveal warmer, brighter and open faces.

The video ends with the women talking about what the experience reveals.

“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty,” says one.

Do you think you’re more beautiful than you say, the artist asks.

“Yeah,” she replies.

Viewers are moved by the divergence between how we see ourselves and how others see us, shown materially and dramatically in the portraits.

When I ask the students what the campaign says about beauty they are practical and cynical.

Look, at the heart of the matter is the business of sales, one student remarks.

Dove sales rose in 2005 after it launched the initial campaign to re-define beauty.

So, I ask, has Dove re-defined beauty?


All Dove has done is enlarge the postage stamp definition of beauty, say the students.

But it’s still beauty viewed through a narrow lens of mostly slim, youthful and blue-eyed women.

The new definition may be broader but it’s still small enough to fit inside a small envelope.

See the Dove video-short at

Image from Adweek, rendering by Gil Zamora


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in framing, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Beauty as Propaganda

  1. Loren Riley says:

    I agree with the conclusion of this post, and enjoyed reading it, however I do have one question: If something is designed to do something specific, but fails (as obviously it did with your students, and many other people with this particular Dove campaign) can it still be propaganda?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It depends on how you define propaganda, and sometimes there’s a fine line. Traditionally we think of propaganda as intentional falsehood. But I would argue that presenting one side (only) of a story can be another form of falsehood. I hope the students walk away with a critical view that stories are complex. Dove has some good intentions–efforts to improve self-esteem and avoiding rail-thin models. But the message is still clear: we judge you by your appearance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Loren Riley says:

        It does depend! That’s why I asked, because I’ve never met two people that agree on a definition. Obviously, the word ‘propaganda’ didn’t originally have a negative connotation since it’s basically just the noun form of ‘propagate’, but it does now.

        I suggest we come up with completely new words for the varying definitions of ‘propaganda’. One for:

        ‘To attempt to spread an idea’

        ‘To spread an idea through deceitful means’

        ‘To attempt to spread an idea, crush opposing ideas’, and

        ‘To attempt to spread an idea, crush opposing ideas, and actually achieve some measure of success.’

        I personally have always felt that ‘propaganda’ is too strong a word for something that does not actually propagate the intended idea. If it fails, it is not propaganda. The intended message (in my opinion) is irrelevant. But that’s just me. No one I’ve spoken with about it has ever agreed with me. And that’s fine. I’d hate it if we all agreed on something.


  2. roberta4949 says:

    Iseen that it was amazing, I cant stand to look at myself, but once in a video i did of myself i looked like my brother, not a bad looking fello if you ask I almost didn’t believe that was me in the video too. weird.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Conrad R says:

    not good,, when the outer beauty of what other people think and our society fades , they are faced with very handsome,,and mature,, yet will never be able to feel that oh my you are soo beautiful again,,,i would not wish to be one of the beautiful people,,unless i myself could stay within.
    conrad r

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So, maybe I’m not objectively beautiful. But I still walk past mirrors and think “god, I’m gorgeous!”. I never, ever did that before. I said this to my mum the other day and she looked at me like I’m crazy, but I’m so much happier. Women are taught from birth that their value is in how attractive they are. They might have other talents, but they are only of interest if they are also sexually attractive. This is so wrong! This campaign shows that women demonise their looks, it is important in that sense, but it fails to address the fact that their appearance has no value anyway. That, however, doesn’t sell firming creams… For so long I wanted to hide away because I’m not society’s idea of perfect. Well, they can all go to hell. I am an individual, this is my life. I have talent, a mind, a consciousness that craves experience and I will not let anyone else’s concept of beauty keep me down. I hope to have a child soon, and I will never criticise my looks in front of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Women know that we are our own worst critics — at least that’s what our beloved friends and significant others tell us. Now, thanks to Dove‘s latest installment of its Real Beauty campaign (and some CSI-worthy forensic science), we have tangible proof that it’s true.

    Liked by 1 person

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