Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beauty Contest

Today, as the Oscars get underway, the advertisers at The Los Angeles Times are publicizing another race, the "Real Ads by Real Woman" contest, sponsored by the Dove company and hosted online by AOL. Although the quality of the production values varies among these entries, one of them will appear as an amateur commercial -- supposedly made by a "real woman" -- touting Dove's products and be aired during a break in this highly rated evening of TV viewership.

As an example of how fan cultures are expected to produce not only user-generated content but even the corporate marketing that would normally interrupt or gatekeep conventional mass entertainment, this competition may represent a logical extreme of what Henry Jenkins has called "convergence culture."

This confusion of categories between participatory culture and corporate marketing may be particularly disturbing to those who look at the depiction of women in the media and point out that the parent company of Dove also makes ads for Eurocentric products in India, showcased in the skin color sexual politics of this commercial. It also authorizes sexist campaigns for men's deodorants and fragrances, which has inspired recent criticism of their corporate ideology by fellow Sivacracy blogger Ann Bartow.

At the same time, Dove has just unveiled the newest piece of its pseudo-social marketing effort, the Campaign for Real Beauty. Its "Beauty Has No Age Limit" ads for its hair care and skin product lines are aiming at older consumers, just as its "Real Women Have Real Curves" campaign and "Evolution" spots targeted average looking younger women who might feel unrepresented in Madison Avenue glamor pics. (Of course, like everything else, the "Evolution" campaign has inspired a number of parodies on the YouTube.)

There's a strong Internet component to the "Beauty Has No Age Limit" campaign that shows images of women in their fifties and sixties in their birthday suits and invites viewers to "watch what we couldn't show you on TV." By trying to create scandal or controversy around their supposedly positive spin on the natural process of aging, the implication is that this campaign would be offensive to mainstream sensibilities who are priggish about both nudity and viewing older women as sexual beings and thus taboo for television. As someone who spends some time in the visual culture of Europe, I thought that the ads were still pretty tame and perfectly in keeping with American puritanical sensibilities. And even though these older women were smiling for the camera as they hid their private parts, they were often shown crouching if not cowering in positions that suggest domination by the male gaze.

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