Judith Williamson analyses one of Unilever’s advertisements for Dove soap, concluding that an awareness of the visual codes in the ad gives an insight into the portrayal of women generally in advertising.
Williamson explains how the long-running campaign has centred on the portrayal of ‘real women’ as opposed to stereotypical beautiful women. And makes the following observations on the ad:
- The unusual placement and use of the woman’s body in the ad – off-centre and not central to the visual, and shown as using the product rather than promoting an aspirational body to be attained through the use of the product.
- She notes that the use of black models is still relatively unusual in a Western environment. However, also observes the context of Unilever producing a skin lightening cream and Slimfast. Some inconsistency in values across its different brands.
- The photography is not deliberately sexualised or sensualised. The woman is laughing and smiling while she looks at her arm; she is not looking at us in a sensual, seductive (ie not laughing) way. This is different to many adverts featuring women, which seem to suggest buy this and you can be like me or, more cynically, you can have me.
- Finally she notes the blemishes on the woman’s arm have not been Photoshopped out – emphasising the ‘ordinary woman’ concept.
I found Williamson’s analysis interesting and it will certainly provoke me to think more deeply about what is happening in the images around me. Though in the end, advertising is advertising. This ad appeals to the women who are tired of seeing themselves being portrayed as sensual objects in advertising – it is advertising to that group, not taking some kind of higher ground, but saying ‘buy me’, I represent your values. Other women seem to aspire to something with more glamour and other brands will appeal to them.
It is not surprising that Unilever has other brands that promote different messages – it is a multinational fast-moving consumer goods business, designed to make money. It is very successful in separating its different brands and their values so the consumer’s focus is on the brand name, not the corporate Unilever name, which doesn’t feature prominently on any of its products. Above all, they do not make any secret that this is what they do, and any consumer with the curiosity and interest can easily see this.
Williamson J (2015). Advertising. Source, issue 83, Summer 2015 [magazine].