Yesterday I saw this new Dove advertisement and was entirely taken in. Against my better judgement – this is after all commercial advertising, intended to sell a product. Still, call me sentimental, but I find this a beautiful and relatable portrait of teenage girls (why only girls though? Why these ones?). However, this looks like transparently recorded reality, but is primarily a very professionally thought through and made construct.
It is ambiguous in its attitude to this. It treats self-portraiture, so it is by definition about self-construction, and yet it pretends to share the innocence of the girls it portrays. Many of the employed strategies, like the wobbly camera when the project is explained [2:23], falsely suggest artlessness. The created image is artful, both in the sense of artistic and in the sense of manipulated.
It reminds me of my 2,5-year-old who says things like: “I’m going to look really sweet to mummy, because I want…”, which wins me over precisely because his intentional manipulation is so openly revealed, which in its clumsy craftiness is actually very candid. So the unconcealed quality of the manipulation actually makes it more cute than if it had been well hidden. But I warn him now: this trick won’t work anymore in a couple of years. Once you know someone knows the ropes of influencing, any conscious designs either should be made explicit upfront, or hide themselves well, not to come across as sly, manipulative, scheming, or other antonyms of authentic. And that is the problem with the Dove ad. The teenagers’ selfies and self-presentation in the interviews is genuine and therefore endearing, despite the clichés and the contradictions (e.g. the girl around [6:30] who professes no longer to be afraid of showing herself, while her hands are three-quarters up her sleeves). But the wobbly camera is the work of a team of professionals who knowingly suggest that there is no artifice when there is. They selected this particular set of teenagers, and left out others. Were they more or less good-looking? Did they have worse acne, or would another selection have been too homogenously white? Or did they – despite being as real and genuine – come across as less authentic? And therefore lend Dove an image it couldn’t use?
What is interesting on the other hand, is that the workshop clearly teaches these girls to create a beautiful selfie (“redefine beauty”) not by changing their faces but by taking a different picture. They are learning to be artful, in the sense of ‘creating art’ – less different from beautifying yourself physically through the use of expensive soap than Dove wants to suggest – but still. Like artists they think about what it means to represent something, someone, or in this case oneself, and what you can do to manipulate the outcome in the act of portrayal, without changing the original.
And that is a trick that Roosevelt too was very good at: managing how photos of him would be framed so as to contribute to a consistent – authentic, sincere, approachable, uncontrived – image of himself. Not only did he actually have a nice smile, he also contrived to get it photographed (which previously had been unusual for a president). Like these teenagers he had a team of professionals to help him do so, and in a sense he too was selected for this role through his election. But his awareness of what he was doing meant that he also had to hide the mechanics of his supposed artlessness (i.e. the team of professionals). Once you have fallen into knowledge that mass-mediated authenticity is a performance, performing it convincingly is important. And riding on the back of endearing teenagers to rhetorically adopt their innocence feels a bit dirty.
So, where’s my expensive soap?
Thank you Tazuko van Berkel for the link & @meanderaar for your helpful thoughts!