Friday, December 13, 2013

The Identity Vendors

Kelley Lebrock's classic Pantene ad. Click
to enlarge and read the smaller text.
I never know how to process advertisements that claim a social conscience. Sure, in the video above, Pantene accurately spotlights the double standards that hamper high-achieving women in today’s business environment. Women shouldn’t feel impeded by judgments that only apply based on their chromosomes. But Pantene still wants to sell you shampoo. Would their sudden feminist turn have occurred if women worldwide felt okay with their hair?

This campaign is of a piece with Pantene’s classic 1980s “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” ads. Kelly LeBrock claimed she shampooed and blow-dried, same as any other woman, and therefore didn’t deserve women’s envy. Yet LeBrock’s highly styled ad, slathered in cosmetics, nevertheless reinforces the archetype that women should spend copious time on their appearance. Time they shouldn’t spend on jobs, or family, or… y’know… a life.

Such messages enforce class-based judgments on women—on people, really. Early male style icon Beau Brummell claimed he spent five hours daily getting dressed, which implicitly declared that he had five hours daily to waste on clothes. Many female beauty accessories, like high heels and concealer, originated at the court of Louis XIV, who was short and had smallpox scars. People mimicked these accoutrements in an attempt to look courtly.

Time hasn’t dulled beauty’s economic subtext. Pantene’s ad, above, correlates physical beauty, in the form of lustrous, full-bodied hair, with executive authority and wealth. In Pantene’s glamorous parallel universe, corporate accomplishment apparently includes a make-up team to smooth lady bosses’ skin tone and ensure they have no powder on their blouses. “Accomplish your utmost,” this ad whispers alluringly, “provided you never neglect your outward appearance.”

Promo still from Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty "Sketch Artist" ad.
Note how the "beautiful" image, right, looks more stereotypically Caucasian.
Attentive readers might recall Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, which distributed an online ad recently comparing how women described themselves to how others described them. A police sketch artist created matching images. Not surprisingly, to anybody who knows women, the subjects described themselves plainer, dumpier, and less attractive than others described them. Barraged by unrealistic images of “normal” beauty, women become their own worst critics.

But the Campaign itself came under fire for spotlighting fair-haired, fair-skinned visions of beauty. Despite brief flashes of good-looking Hispanic and African American women, more than three minutes of this three-minute-thirty-second ad foregrounded white women, mostly blondes. The ad was as diverse as a Viking raid. Instead of subverting mainstream beauty ideals, it reinforced significant traditional attitudes, in a putatively empowering package.

Then, in the most appalling turn, it finished with an attractive middle-aged Caucasian woman stating that a woman’s perception of her own beauty colors her every other perception. If she doesn’t consider herself beautiful, it’ll drain her confidence, impede her career, and submarine her romantic prospects. So love your outward appearance, ladies! It’s the new, secular salvation! Wow, what a bitchslap to women not born with Baywatch looks.

Dove and Pantene don’t exist to uplift women or instill redeeming values. If you want that, buy a book or go to church. These corporations exist to sell you product, which they accomplish in part by first convincing you that you need what they sell. Your hair lacks shine! Your lizard-like skin needs moisture! We’ll fix it if you give us money! But if they said that aloud, they’d face outraged blowback, and for good reason.

This Eisenhower-era cosmetics ad is hardly a model
of enlightened gender roles. But at least it doesn't
pretend to feminist ideals it doesn't really possess.
Consider all the companies that actively tell women they’re currently inadequate. Hast thou uneven skin? L’oreal gives you that unblemished complexion. Saggy boobs? Victoria’s Secret will turn you into a runway model. Vera Wang and Calvin Klein will highlight your legs, butt, and whatever randomly selected feature fashion designers claim needs attention this season. And Prada accessories will make you appear wealthy and ambitious, independent but a good catch.

If women truly appreciated themselves, they could blow a hole in America’s economy overnight. American women spent over $33 billion on beauty supplies in 2010, according to the Commerce Department—enough to provide clean water, decent nutrition, and a high-school education to the entire developing world, twice. Yet according to my doctor, most women could achieve similar beauty effects by exercising, watching their diet, and drinking adequate quantities of water.

I like and admire women. So when major American corporations try to pitch uplifting messages, I want to thank them. But I can’t separate the moral lessons Pantene, Dove, and other corporations peddle, from their deeper business model. Even in telling women to seize their own destiny, these companies ultimately profit by selling dissatisfaction and want. Sometimes the message matters. But sometimes we can’t divide the message from the messenger.

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