Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dove Onslaught and the Cold War of Culture

Dove's released a new video, OnSlaught, following the success of their PSA "Evolution" last year. I'm a big fan of the campaign... it's emblematic of a new sensibility developing in corporations, who are trying to create productive relationships with their clientelle, instead of just repeating taglines and saturating media with their logo. Those who want to destroy capitalism will still object, seeing this as another method of appropriation. Those who would rather meet the market half-way... people like me... should see this for what it is: a step forward for the culture, wherein the interests of the company, the consumer, and the society are becoming more intertwined and symbiotic.

This new Dove video is interesting to me, as a media student. Intentional or not, the ad references one of the most famous PSA's in history, the "Daisy Girl" ad created by Tony Schwartz in 1964. Schwartz has discussed his own inspiration in creating the ad, saying that it isn't designed to tell the public what to buy, so much as to activate the latent emotions they already have. In that way, Daisy Girl differs significantly from previous "sales pitch" and newsreel ads. Instead of pitching adjusted informational content, Schwartz creates a visual and audio environment that elicits an emotional response and taps an audiences anxieties and preconceptions.

Some people call this fearmongering, or propaganda... I see it as a new respect for evocation and the psychology of politics. Daisy Girl was an audacious PSA that addressed peace and militarism as resonant concerns for voters during the Cold War, and it made an abstract statement that spoke to the specific fears of the public. If corporations have harnessed this method to misrepresent products and play on anxieties and stereotypes, I don't think it's Mr. Schwartz's fault.

Onslaught, I feel, renews Schwartz's productive use of mass media. On the most superficial level, we're shown an intimate portrait of a child, and then our gaze is reversed and cast upon the dangers that confront her. There's no mention, textually or audibly, of sex, objectification, or feminism, but with the juxtaposition Dove presents, viewers realize that they know this imagery is dangerous and offensive. Try to explain it and you get lost in the words. Show it, out of context, in a river of sensory overload, and we're forced to confront it and deal with our own innate response.

And when these things converge -- the abstract, oblique theories (feminism, psychoanalysis, media critique) and the gut reactions (the intuitive revulsion and anxiety that Dove elicits) -- when these yield the same result, I'm disposed to believe it: that the beauty industry, with its fashion and cosmetic culture, is an ideological payload being dropped that needs to be diffused and neutralized.


Garreth said...

This is interesting, and I buy your interpretation of the way the add might be received. In a world where such messages are sent through airwaves/networks tainted with the prejudices born of a cynical age, it's just plain easy to file this ad in the, "Hmm, that's interesting but, oh yeah, I get it, their positing themselves as "the outsider" so that by going back to the 99% pure bar you escape the new fangled versions of beauty." Yeah, I see that angle, but you're on to something when you sense that you'd like to believe there's a common ground where the consumer, the culture and the capitalist can all meet and move forward.

Your linking it to the Daisy Girl PSA of the 60s (wasn't it an ad for the Johnson campaign?) is interesting. I wasn't reading it on that level, but I'll go back and look at that ad again. Certainly the face in the opening shot is familiar. I just checked it out a few weeks ago on a great website for all things related to nuclear armageddon/apocalypse/ragnarok which I'd like to give you the link for but for which I'm too lazy to search right now.

I know you've written on this particular campaign before, so it's interesting to follow the growth of the campaign and your particular response to it. You note that it's indicative of a new movement of corporations trying to create "productive relationships" with consumers. "Productive." Interesting. It certainly is, on many levels.

All that said, I can't help but keep a guard up. After all, Dove is only 99% pure. What's the other 1%? Is it in cahoots with the beauty lobby? Does it mildly plot the assassination of Naomi Wolf, all the while softening the skin and moisturizing the faces of countless Americans?

Though I say that tongue-in-cheek, I'm not totally sure there's not some truth to it. If Dove is the "diffuser" of the "ideological" A-bomb of your conceit (brilliant--that's just damn smart reading of the culture), certainly there's something they have vested in the campaign. There's a payoff for them beyond "saving the world." Your position of corps. meeting the clientelle in some new, mutually beneficial ground reserves space for the profit motive...I see that, but how different is Dove's stance from that of, say, Apple when it worked with Chiatt/Day and created the iconic "Think Different" campaign that launched the original iMac? That campaign was the first to really posit Apple as the "outsider", the company that thought differently from all the others. Using portraits of such innovators and cultural bugbears Muhammad Ali, Einstein, Martha Graham, Jackie Robinson, Richard Feynman, Apple shifted it's position within the world of computers from competitor in the game to something akin to a mercenary outside the playing field, lobbing in products that came from someplace "outside the box" and exploding (sometimes dangerously, but mostly harmlessly) in the prevailing culture of the Windows workplace. (Another slogan of that ad campaign was, "no beige." A reference to the fact that the iMac did not come in the ubiquitous beige of all the Wintel machines that had spread like a virus throughout the American landscape.)

While I'm a mac user through and through, I can't help but feel that I continue to buy the products because I buy the image. (Ah, but that's the conundrum of late capitalist USA, say the PostModern pundits.) Same thing for Dove, except here I think there's much more ground to believe in some sort of altruistic motive, given the that the harms of the culture of beauty are so much greater than the harms of a world dominated by windows pcs . . . or are they?

Jesse M said...

I see where you're coming from, and I've struggled with this dialogue before. I can still see the thesis (corporatization) and the antithesis (activism) in Dove's synthesis, and so it's hard to buy the synthesis as necessarily any better.

Tentatively, and especially for the purposes of this blog, I tend to give this synthesis the benefit of the doubt (so to speak). I accept that the profit motive and the bottom line will always be there, both for individuals and for companies, so I figure it's best that we mediate them with a positive ideology.

And I like your reference to the "Think Different" campaign. According to the best possible reading, that campaign worked on you... and on people in general... because it was a progressive campaign, and we "bought the image" because we knew it represented something we could get behind.

Does it make me cynical to say that, unfortunately, we will always have to choose between representations, and we will always be negotiating with a cutthroat corporate mindset on some level? I don't think so... I think marketing, like all artifacts, is a medium, and certain companies redeem themselves by expressing something positive through it.

As much as I'd love to be a revolutionary, I don't think I am, in this particular way. I'm just a hardcore progressive.

Garreth said...

"As much as I'd love to be a revolutionary, I don't think I am, in this particular way. I'm just a hardcore progressive."

Right, if you were are real revolutionary, you'd be using "Lava" soap, abrading the dirt and a good deal of the epidermis right off. Lava is the violent rebellion of soaps. It takes no prisoners and doesn't deal in surfactants. No sir. The baby definitely goes out with the bathwater when using Lava.

Now, hardcore progressives are free to use whatever soap they choose (except Softsoap...for obvious reasons). "Lever" is generally a good choice for the progressive, it's name synonymous with a simple machine used to move much larger (ideological) payloads, to appropriate your metaphor.

It seems to me I could go on here, scrubbing my way to a brilliance not seen since my skin first twitched in the cool air of the world. But I'm just being self-indulgent.

Now, it came to me as a huge whack on the side of the head when I realized--actually, you told me outrigh--just how apt your blog's title is to the stance in this (and many other entries). Absolutely...Dove deserves the benefit of the doubt, and it has received it here.