As a child of the 1950s, I was fascinated by advertising. My favourites were the ones using cartoon strips. Who could forget the gripping, full-page Horlicks cartoon story? The worried wife confiding in her best friend about her husband's lack of energy. The kind friend diagnosing the problem as Night Starvation. The solution: a mug of Horlicks at bedtime. The result: a reinvigorated husband, no longer suffering from Night Starvation, and a very happy wife.
But in those days I read the story for its own sake. I was only seven, so I didn't have a husband and I wasn't responsible for feeding anyone. What I liked was the pictures: when I grew up I wanted to be a commercial illustrator.
Advertising has come a long way since then. The brilliant TV series Mad Men captures the beginnings of today's incredible sophistication and subterfuge. You've probably seen, for example, ads for Dove "beauty" products on our TV screens, based around the notion of "real women". But in the US, Dove's marketeers have gone much, much further. They've created the "Dove Movement for Self-Esteem", whose website declares:
"Dove is committed to building positive self-esteem and inspiring all women and girls to reach their full potential- but we need your help. We're building a movement in which women everywhere have the tools to take action and inspire each other and the girls in their lives. It could be as simple as sending a word of encouragement to a girl in your life or supporting self-esteem education in your town. From mentoring the next generation to celebrating real beauty in ourselves and others, we can open a world of possibilities for women and girls everywhere. Will you join us?"
You're invited to sign up on-line and deliver a message: "What advice would you give to your 13 year old self? We'll collect these messages and deliver them to girls to build self-esteem in the next generation." But this message is optional. What they really want is your details so that they can "keep you updated about the Dove Movement actions, as well as product samples or special offers from Dove". You can opt out, but they'll still have your details and you won't hear about the Movement.
But wait, there's more. A brilliant post by Claire on Non-Profity.com points out that Dove’s owner is Unilever, which markets a wide range of “beauty” brands in ways which run completely counter to any notion of female self-esteem. She includes video clips of ads for Unilever skin-whitening creams, weight-loss products and hair products which prey shamelessly on women's and girls' insecurities about their appearance, and one of the notorious “Axe” male deodorant ads showing hordes of extremely scantily clad women (they make the "Tui girls" look positively Puritan) pounding after a man using this stuff (running makes their breasts leap about), with the punchline "Use more, get more".
Real beauty? Real women? Building self-esteem? It's not a movement, it's an ad campaign.