Thought Catalog

The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam

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The only way to win is not to play

“Dude, are you doing the Dove ad now? That was so April 15th…?” Yes, I realize I missed the meme train, but it’s better to be right than part of the debate, especially when there is no debate, this is all a short con inside a 50+ year long con. Remember House Of Games? “It’s called a confidence game. Why, because you give me your confidence? No: because I give you mine.”

“What’s with you and fin-de-Reagan David Mamet?” It’s not my fault Dove cast Joe Mantegna as the sketch artist, and anyway if you want to understand the world today, you have to understand how the Dumbest Generation of Narcissists In The History Of The World was educated. See also: 9 1/2 Weeks.

Here’s how you run a short con, pay attention:

Everyone likes to know the secrets of the game, and this scene certainly satisfies. Joe Mantagena shows a famous psychiatrist (played, tellingly, by David Mamet’s future ex-wife) how a short con is done, how it’s improvised, and he makes it look so easy. Really easy, except for the part where you have to connect with a perfect stranger and make them like you. Did you find yourself wondering if you had the skills to pull it off?  Better watch it again, sucker.

Quick test for a con: what questions does it not occur to you to ask? While you were memorizing the language and the pacing of the scam, you didn’t ask yourself, why didn’t Mantegna take that guy’s money at the end? Why did he let him off the hook? “He was just doing it as an example.” Oh, like when a guy says he’ll put in just the tip, “I want to see if it fits”?   It’s not like the psychiatrist doesn’t know he’s a thief– that’s why they were there in the first place. So he purposely didn’t steal the money to make the psychiatrist feel at ease, feel closer to him. To earn her confidence by first giving her his. She’s the mark. The aborted short con is part of an unseen long con.

But the genius of the scene is that while you, the viewer, are criticizing the stilted dialogue or the improbability of the success, “dude, that would never work in real life!” if you search your sclerotic heart you will find that you yourself felt good that Mantegna didn’t take that guy’s money, that he let him go. It endeared you to Joe, it made you feel more sympathetic to him, like he’s an ethical thief, like he’s Lawful Neutral. In other words, he’s given you his confidence…. which means that the true mark is you.

Women are their own worst beauty critics…. At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety… That’s why we decided to conduct a compelling social experiment that proves to women something very important: You are more beautiful than you think.

“Oh my God,” you might say, “I know it’s just an ad, but it’s such a positive message.”

If some street hustler challenges you to a game of three card monte you don’t need to bother to play, just hand him the money, not because you’re going to lose but because you owe him for the insight: he selected you. Whatever he saw in you everyone sees in you, from the dumb blonde at the bar to your elderly father you’ve dismissed as out of touch, the only person who doesn’t see it is you, which is why you fell for it. Even mirrors fail you.  Hence a sketch.

II

The gimmick that propels the Dove ad is a comparison between subjectivity and objectivity, though in this case objectivity is defined as however well Mantegna can use a charcoal pencil. Why not just use a photograph?

Because when it comes to beauty, we all know photographs can be manipulated, especially in ads, especially by Dove. So the ad frees you from your cynicism and goes with a new standard of beauty, one that, like yoga or genetics, has been around for a long time AND you know very little about it; it hasn’t been over-critiqued, you haven’t watched it fail over and over, and thus seems pure, fantastical, true. The artist’s sketch. How can anything this lovingly and precisely created not be the real thing? And nothing makes a middle aged neurotic happier than 45 minutes alone in a loft with a good looking man who requires no sexual contact and just wants to listen to you talk about yourself, unless he’s also sketching you attentively in natural light. “Can I offer you a Pinot Grigio?” Slow down, Christian, you’re making me woozy. There is not enough quantitative easing in the universe to prop up this fantasy, but at $3000000000000 you can’t say America’s not committed to the attempt.

The mistake in interpreting this ad is in assuming the ad is selling based on the women and their beauty. If that were true, it would be counterproductive: if they are naturally beautiful, if the problem is actually a psychological one, then they certainly don’t need any beauty products. A beauty ad operates by creating a gap between you and an ideal: by creating an anxiety that can only be mitigated by the product. But this ad reduces anxiety and avoids cynicism. Therefore, it is not a beauty products ad. It is selling something else. This is why there aren’t any products in the ad.

Dove is telling you you don’t need to do anything to be beautiful, but it knows full well women must do something to themselves to feel good about themselves, and if they don’t need makeup then at least a moisturizing soap. All Dove needs to solidify this is to be recognized as an authority on beauty– real beauty, not fake, Photoshopped, eyeliner and pushup bras beauty.

It is the sketch artist who is the most important character in the ad, the ad is selling him. That’s why he doesn’t just draw the sketches, he sticks around to chaperone these women to self-awareness. By the way he is depicted you understand that he knows beauty, inner and outer; he is part father, part lover, expert in what makes a woman valuable. For you to accept him, he can’t be married; but since in real life he is, they only show you the right hand– the part of him that almost autonomously draws beauty. He is an authority on appearance, he is the “other omnipotent entity” that decides whether  “you are beautiful.”

The ad lets the women become beautiful without selling them anything. It lets them win. It lets them win. It endears them and you to Dove, it makes you feel more sympathetic to Dove, like it’s an ethical beauty products company, like it’s Lawful Neutral. It gave these women its confidence; it gave you, the viewer, its confidence.

And then– spoiler alert– it will screw you and take your money.

III

That Dove wants you to think of it as the authority on beauty so it can sell you stuff makes sense, there’s nothing underhanded about it and hardly worth the exposition. The question is, why do they think this will work? What do they know about us that makes them think we want an authority on beauty– especially in an age where we loudly proclaim that we don’t want an authority on beauty, we don’t like authorities of any kind, we resist and resent being told what’s beautiful (or good or moral or worthwhile) and what’s not?

You may feel your brain start trying to piece this together, but you should stop, there’s a twist: where did you see this ad? It wasn’t during an episode of The Mentalist on the assumption that you’re a 55 year old woman whose husband is “working late.” In fact… it’s not even playing anywhere. You didn’t stumble on it, you were sent to it, it was sent to you– it was selected for you to see. How did they know? Because if you’re watching it, it’s for you.

Here you have an ad that was released into the Matrix, it is not selling a product but its own authority, and it is not targeting a physical demo, age/race/class, it is targeting something else that operates not on demography but virality. Are you susceptible? So while you are sure you most certainly don’t want an authority on beauty, the system decided that you, in fact, do very much want an authority on beauty. The question is, which of you is the rube?

“But I hated the ad!” Oh, I know, for all the middlebrow acceptable reasons you think you came up with yourself. Not relevant. The con artists at Dove didn’t select these women to represent you because you are beautiful or ugly, any more than the street hustler selected you for your nice smile. They were selected because they represent a psychological type that transcends age/race/class, it is characterized by a kind of psychological laziness: on the one hand, they don’t want to have to conform to society’s impossible standards, but on the other hand they don’t want the existential terror of NOT conforming to some kind of standard. They want an objective bar to be changed to fit them– they want “some other omnipotent entity” to change it so that it remains both entirely valid yet still true for them, so that others have to accept it, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about look at your GPA: you know, and I know, that if college graded you based on the actual number of correct answers you generated, no curve, then you would have gotten an R. Somehow that R became an A. The question is, why bother? Why not either make grades rigorous and valid so we know exactly what they mean, or else do away with them entirely? Because in either case society and your head would implode from the existential vacuum. Instead, everyone has to get As AND the As have to be “valid” so you feel good enough to pay next year’s tuition, unfortunately leaving employers with no other choice but to look for other more reliable proxies of learning like race, gender, and physical appearance. Oh. Did you assume employers would be more influenced by the fixed grades than their own personal prejudices? “Wait a second, I graduated 4.0 from State, and the guy you hired had a 3.2 from State– the only reason you didn’t hire me is because I’m a woman!” Ok, this is going to sound really, really weird:  yeah. The part that’s going to really have you scratching your head is why did either of you need college when the job only requires a 9th grade education?

Which is why those that yelled “Unilever owns Dove and Axe!” like it was an Alex Jones tweet, those who felt tricked/used/violated that Unilever has a sexist side to it, those who thought the ad was hypocritical or  “anti-feminist” are still being duped, detecting hypocrisy is 100% the play of the rube, go ahead and yell indignantly as you continue to be fleeced. Figuring out the short con is part of the long con, see also House Of Games, for a non-spoiler example if the street hustler is shifting the cards and you think you’re able to follow them, then you’re still going to lose AND your pocket is being picked. “Can’t bluff someone who isn’t paying attention,” Mantegna told the shrink helpfully– he’s telling her the scam, no, she didn’t listen either. So let’s go to the places where people pay attention, go to the “intelligent” media outlets where all the suckers hang out, and observe the most common criticism about this Dove ad: it has no black women in it. Never mind it does, that’s a very telling criticism: why would you want black women in it? It’s not the Senate, it’s an ad, no, don’t you hang up on me, why do you want blacks in the ad? Because it would represent the diversity of beauty? Because without them, it sends black women the wrong message about society’s standards? Your answer is irrelevant, the important part is that whatever your answer, it is founded on the assumption that ads have the authority to set standards. Which is why, in your broken brain, the reflex is to complain about the contents of the ad, not assert the insignificance of ads. The con worked. Of course it worked: they selected you.

“Well, not authority– power. You can’t deny their power is massive, but of course I’m not a stupid, I don’t think it’s legitimate.” I’m sorry, no, you are stupid. You’ll let it have power over you in exchange for the right to brag that you know its not legitimate.

This is the same problem with people who want to ban Photoshopping in magazines or want bigger women to be featured in ads. You all have the internet, right? It seems crazy to worry about how beauty is portrayed on TV and ads when there are blonde billions (rated on a scale of one to ten) getting double penetrated literally underneath your gmail window, but that obsessive worry about what’s on TV or what’s in an ad is completely predicated on the assumption that the ad, the media, has all the power to decide what’s desirable. And therefore, of course, it does. But the important point is not that you believe this to be true, the point is that you want this to be true. You want it to be true that advertising sets the standard of beauty because in the insane calculus of your psychology you have a better chance of changing Dove than you have of changing yourself, turns out that’s true as well.

Dove, et al sympathize with your powerlessness, so since you can’t get anywhere near those  impossible standards, ads give you a chance of making some kind of progress: a little moisturizing soap and a positive message and maybe you get closer to the aspirational images of the women in the ad. “Those women are aspirational?” Of course: they’re happy, Dad told them they’re good. It feels like improvement, it feels like change, and I hope by now you understand it’s only a defense against change.

The obvious retort is that ads are everywhere, you can’t ignore them. But there are rats in the ceiling of your favorite restaurant, and you ignore them no problem, you don’t even look up. That’s the real Matrix you make for yourself continuously, in analog, not digital– overestimate this, disavow that, a constant transduction of reality into a safe hue of green, until by the time you get to bed you’re physically exhausted but your brain can’t downshift.  “I have insomnia.” Time for a Xanax. Yes, it’s Blue.

“Everybody gets something out of every transaction,” said Joe, explaining why people want to be conned. That’s what ads do for you. They’ll let you complain that they are telling you what to want, as long as you let them tell you how to want.

“Shouldn’t my parents have taught me how to want, instead of yelling at me about what to want?” You’d think that, let’s check in: have you shown this ad to your 14 year old daughter yet? Oh, you sent it to her on Facebook, that was helpful. What did you tell her about the ad? “Well, even though it’s an ad and they’re trying to sell you Dove soap, there’s a positive message in it.” No other ways to deliver positive messages? “Well, the ad is really well made, and it communicates the message more powerfully than I ever could.” But if the medium is the message, shouldn’t you NOT show her this ad?

David Mamet has some excellent insights, but for practice what you preach wisdom you have to defer to a Wachowski sister: stop letting the Matrix tell you who you are.

IV

Did the way the sketching sessions were conducted remind you of anything? The women aren’t in yoga casual, no one’s wearing sneakers–they got a little dressed up for the appointment. Observe the way they talk about themselves, trying to find just the right words because, you know, their inner experience is very complicated; and the unfinished, hesitating haste with which they take their handbags and walk out at the end leaving the artist behind. The loft is certainly an inviting, comfortable setting, warm and safe, but it doesn’t belong to them. They know they are merely visitors in a shared space. That setting is exactly like therapy.

You may think this is merely my (a psychiatrist’s/House Of Games viewer’s) biased perception of this, except that a) they’re in San Francisco, where the main output is crematorium roast coffee and cash-only psychiatry, and b):

My father was emotionally very distant– and so was my mom. And I didn’t get the emotional comfort I needed…

It’s been really clear to me over my life that I’ve made really bad choices, and that’s a reflection of my self esteem. I chose the wrong jobs, the wrong husbands…

I use a toolbox of things I tell myself…. whenever I hear negative thoughts about myself, I remind myself I have to use what’s inside me, my authentic self, to feel good about how I am.

This isn’t every woman I’ve ever been stuck next to on the A train who spotted me with a psych journal or a flask, this monologue is in the ad.  Let’s find out why: anybody watching this ad in therapy? Anybody watching this ad ever fantasize about what it would be like being in therapy? What a coincidence.

This woman is roots deep in therapy, she thinks about herself in the language of “insight oriented therapy,” how has this strategy worked out for her?

Florence
Florence as described by Florence via

Yikes, an Oscar Wilde novel. But the thing to notice here is not that this thinking has failed but that this thinking has BOTH failed AND she thinks it has worked amazingly well for everything else EXCEPT her perception of her physical appearance, her self-esteem; only in that one single area does she “have more work to do on myself.” If you ask her about her capacity for empathy or her social/political beliefs or her “values”–those aren’t evolving, those are evolved, they are unassailable. “I have a lot of love to give.” How do you know?

I’m not picking on her, any woman who has to raise two kids on her own or with a husband has my unconditional support, but truth hurts, that’s how you know it’s true. The confidence with which she knows how her perception of self-esteem affects everything in life, “it couldn’t be more crucial” is not an insight, it is not wisdom gained from years of therapy: she has been conned, it is society’s long con so her pocket can be picked.

The ad’s association to therapy here was probably not planned but it was inevitable, just as Mantegna selecting a psychiatrist and not an engineer or a cook or a stripper as the mark in House Of Games was inevitable. It is the only system of rules based on self-deception, it  encourages the illusion of “self” separate from behavior. And as long as psychiatry uncritically elevates identity over behavior, it makes it–not the patients, it–an easy mark for con men with their own agenda: SSI, the justice system, gun control, schools, whatever. “It’s called a confidence game. Why, because you give me your confidence? No: because I give you mine.” Take a minute, think it through.

Self esteem is sold to you as an inalienable right, not something to be earned; and if you don’t have self-esteem it’s because fake society made you feel bad about yourself. But fake society also made you feel good about yourself, it propped you up. The reason you got an A and not an R and believed it is because you actually believe you are an A kind of guy, Math, English, History, Science, PE, and Lunch notwithstanding. A, not R. But if everyone deserves it, it has no value. Which is why getting it is unsatisfying.

Self-esteem is relative, advertising knows this, which is why it operates on comparisons between you and the aspirational people in the ad that seem better because they own the product. The Dove ad dispenses with the aspirational people and actually compares you to you. But that’s not you, it’s aspirational you, “wouldn’t it be great if people saw me in an idealized, sketchy kind of way?” But even as it does this, it pretends self-esteem is innate.

One of the great insights of psychoanalysis is that you never really want an object, you only want the wanting, which means the solution is to set your sights on an impossible ideal and work hard to reach it. You won’t. That’s not just okay, that’s the point. It’s ok if you fantasize about knowing kung fu if you then try to actually learn kung fu, eventually you will understand you can never really know kung fu, and then you will die. And it will have been worth it.

You can’t see it, but since this is America, the problem here is debt. Not credit card debt, though I suspect that’s substantial too, but self-esteem debt. They’re borrowing against their future accomplishments to feel good about themselves today, hoping they’ll be able to pay it back. Melinda’s 26, at that age some self-esteem debt is reasonable as long as you use it to hustle. But what happens if you overspend now and can’t pay it back by the time you’re 40? Look above. Time for therapy or a moisturizing soap. There’s not enough quantitative easing in the universe to prop up this fantasy, but you can’t say America’s not committed to the attempt. TC mark

image ­ YouTube

This post originally appeared at TheLastPsychiatrist.com.

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