Yes, Dove’s Real Beauty Bottles Commercial is Flawed. But Let’s Consider Where It’s Coming From.

Simple functionality can’t explain the incredible range of hourglass-shaped products aimed at women.
Screenshot: YouTube

Have you seen Dove’s “Real Beauty Bottles” commercial? The one which offers Dove body wash in bottles designed to mimic women’s body shapes?

You can understand the reasoning. Dove’s long-running “Real Beauty” campaign has always been about celebrating body diversity. So, why not offer alternatives to the typical hourglass design?

Ironically though, the execution completely contradicts that message, as the internet has gleefully pointed out:

  • It encourages paying attention to one’s body-shape, when that’s not supposed to be important.
  • It only offers six bottle designs, despite the huge diversity of women’s body shapes in reality. (And all of the bottles are white too.)
  • It’s really just a gimmick, offering only a very limited run of 6,800 bottles, spread among social media influencers in 15 countries. Meaning that even if ordinary women were somehow inspired to seek out the design that best matched their body shape, they wouldn’t actually be able to get one.
  • And, in being so short-lived, and only providing the same one, classic bottle design in practice, ultimately it implies that there may just be one best body type after all.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost thinks that last is inadvertent; given how “hilariously stupid” this campaign has been (Jezebel), I’m inclined to agree. Regardless of any marketing campaign centered on bottles’ shapes, hourglass designs will always be much more stable and easier to grip than most of the alternatives, let alone those monstrosities provided by Dove.

That said, they’re not the only option. Which got me thinking: where had I seen so many hourglass bottles before? Why, with slimming drinks of course. What is up with that?

You know the answer, and it’s not ergonomics. Indeed, many marketers and advertisers are not shy about the connections they’re making between their products’ designs and the body ideals—and insecurities—they’re promoting, instead elevating them as a unique selling point. Most notoriously perhaps, in 2009, when Son Dam-bi endorsed “Today’s Tea” drink for Lotte Chilsung. Which:


Not only sets up Son Dam-bi’s body as the one, singular standard for all the other women featured to define themselves against:

(Source, all screenshots: Paranzui)

But also makes sure to do so for teenage girls too:

And makes only the scene with the man humorous, to remind us how absurd it would be for men to ever do this sort of thing:

It’s really quite a feast of problematic messages. And, sadly, almost karmic in how Son Dam-bi herself has grappled with severe body-image issues in recent years, reports about her “still ‘frantically’ trying to lose more weight” emerging just as this post was published.

Usually, advertisers are less brazen, but they do still create and highlight a connection. See here for more examples and discussion from 2011 for instance, when there seemed to be a real trend:


With that however, I don’t mean to imply they were the majority of slimming drinks. Nor are they in 2017, as a perusal of any convenience store fridge can attest.

But connections between bottle shapes and women’s bodies are definitely still being made, whether in the classic hourglass form or otherwise:

(Source: YouTube)
(Source: YouTube)

What’s more, if my search had extended to the packaging and marketing of slimming products in general, then I would have been simply overwhelmed with material. Wisely, I’ll confine myself to just one recent, representative example, that of Son Na-eun’s (Apink) commercials for Calobye:

(Source: Ezday)

Likewise, it’s never difficult to find an example of women’s bodies being used to represent a product or service. Again to give a recent for instance, below an obese woman magically loses weight and turns into model and actor Ray Yang, to represent a reduction in LG’s monthly installment rates (and, in a rare case of equal-opportunity objectification, has an obese man turn into model Choi Yong-ho too):

But it can seem like we’ve taken a long detour from a critique of Dove body wash bottles. So, let’s reflect on what we’ve learned on the way.

First, again, that hourglass bottles can’t be explained away by ergonomics, or claimed to be incidental. Who would even try, in the face of such overwhelming evidence?

Yet I’m often frustrated by the lack of mention in articles about their marketing campaigns, especially when writers otherwise wax lyrical over every other little detail. Why this blind spot exists, I’ll suggest a reason for in a moment.

(A rare exception: Apparently “the curve of the [sure] bottle beautifully captures both the swell of sea waves and women’s S-lines.” Source.)

Next, this is by definition gendered marketing, which is usually predicated on and helps perpetuate a whole host of problematic gender roles:

Also, no-one is saying that slimming drink companies can’t distinguish their products from competitors’ by packaging them in this way. In addition, perhaps there are practical limitations to quickly conveying slimming on packaging, on a box, or on a bottle, or through their shapes, without using an hourglass motif. We do, after all, make exaggerated cola-bottle shapes to convey we mean a woman for instance (or we did: now it just feels distasteful). It may explain why articles don’t bother to mention that, because by default an hourglass design is chosen to convey slimming. And, being so common, that choice is unremarkable.

Which begs the questions: does it really make a product stand out, if so many other companies are doing the same thing? Are scenes of Son Na-eun dancing, hourglass hips highlighted with CGI (just in case we didn’t notice), really the best Calobye could come up with to make their product stand out? Or is their campaign just yet another case of using a celebrity to quickly grab viewer’s attentions (*cough* as per my opening image *cough*), which may then linger on the actual product in the 15 second time-slot, and somehow persuade the viewer that the product is responsible for those hips? Wouldn’t, ultimately, ditching the celebrity with the unobtainable body be cheaper, and using models with a range of body types have much wider appeal?

Perhaps I’m being naive. But surely marketers and advertisers have good financial reasons to ask these questions themselves, not just pesky sociologists and feminazis with axes to grind. And, given photoshoppers’ skills in crafting an hourglass waist (or S-line, or wasp waist, or whatever) for almost every woman that appears in an advertisement or photoshoot? Then no, I’m no longer convinced that it’s all that difficult to convey slimming through a representing a range of body types. Or that some patriarchal conspiracy is afoot either, so much as sheer laziness on the part of marketers and advertisers.

(Source: instiz. The image on left is from a photoshoot for a 2014 commercial for Oceanworld)

What I am convinced of is how incredibly tiring this must be for women, constantly being reminded that your body doesn’t measure up to this one, monotonous standard, even though less than 1 in 10 women can ever achieve it.

I’d read about this pressure many times before of course. It can be difficult to relate to for a guy, no matter how sympathetic. But now, it feels just a little less abstract.

Which, all in all, is not a bad lesson to take away from some silly bottles.

Related Posts:

Korean Sociological Image #15: Gendered Health Drinks

Korean Gendered Advertising( Source: left, right )

What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you hear of a “power drink” for men?

If you live in Korea, then I’d wager some form of aphrodisiac, testament to the large number of drinks claiming to improve “men’s power” or “men’s stamina” that are available here. In the particular case of the advertisement on the left though, that would be quite wrong, as Huksaeng (흑생) is the name of a health drink from Hyundai Pharm (현대약품) made with huksam (흑삼), or black-red ginseng (흑삼), and it has no prior history of being marketed to men specifically. Here you can see a women’s taekwondo team extolling its virtues for instance, albeit that of a different company.

But compare that with Hyundai Pharm’s other product Miero Fiber (미에로화이바) on the right, which in its 20-year history has only ever been marketed towards women. Currently placed alongside each other at the Busan Ad Stars 2009 website, the accidental juxtaposition of the two advertisements provides an interesting contrast. And given Koreans’ overwhelming preference for health drinks over multivitamin pills also, then the insights to be gained have more relevance to Koreans’ body images than may at first appear to overseas observers.

My own first reaction was that I was at a loss to think of an Korean advertisement for a health drink aimed at women that uses the analogy of recharging one’s batteries. This is a minor point though, and by no means do I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Korean advertisements, so I would be grateful if readers could pass on any examples that I may have missed. But with the proviso that Huksaeng is supposed to provide more of a mental and general health boost rather than improving one’s body per se, both that and any counter-examples from readers would not detract from the obvious and correct inference that Korean advertisements for “men’s drinks” generally feature men as sporty, active participants in the process of achieving that perfect body and/or losing weight. With those for women however, it’s genuinely difficult to find any that don’t promote the idea that drinking the product is the only step required.

Girls' Generation Miero Beauty N Advertisement( Source )

Don’t just take my word for it though. Consider recent popular commercials with girl-group Girls’ Generation (소녀시대) for Miero Beauty N (미에로뷰티엔) here and here for instance, and more importantly the evidence provided by the journal article “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisements: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” (Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, October 2006), by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, which I discuss in great detail in parts One, Two, and Three of my series on Korean women’s body images from last year. More recently, I discuss it in passing in this post about an advertisement for a diet clinic and this one about the advertisement below for a slimming tea-drink also:

Unfortunately the article is no longer freely available at the link above, and I’ve long since lost my own copy of the original PDF file. I can scan my copy if anybody requests it though, but in the meantime hopefully the abstract will suffice:

Content analysis of diet advertisements was performed to examine how diet advertisements portray the Western ideal of feminine beauty and promote dieting in Korean women’s magazines in comparison with U.S. women’s magazines. Results showed that the Western cultural ideal of feminine beauty and dieting were prevalent in Korean women’s magazines. Diet advertisements in Korean magazines appear to promote more passive dieting methods (e.g., diet pills, aroma therapy, diet crème, or diet drinks) than active dieting methods (e.g., exercise). Results further indicated that women may be misled to believe that dieting is simple, easy, quick, and effective without pain, if they consume the advertised product. This study suggests that there is an urgent need to establish government regulations or policies about diet products and their claims in Korea. Magazine publishers also need to recognize their role in societal well-being and accept some responsibility for advertisements in their magazines.

In especially part Two of that series above I discuss that passivity in more detail and extend it to Korean exercise culture, further continued in this recent post about a device that electrically massages breasts in order to make them grow bigger. No, really:

Korean Breast Massager Advertisement Caucasian

Let me also pass on this post at Sociological Images about the similar gendering of energy drinks in the US, with more of a focus on those targeted towards men, and this one at Feministing about the fact that laxatives there are almost exclusively marketed towards women, with the implicit purposes of losing weight. To which I’d add that their Korean equivalents are both ubiquitous and completely lacking of the usual euphemisms, instead providing computer graphics of bowel movements that leave little to the imagination. Rather than continuing in that vein though(!), let me close with a question prompted by the latter post: what is the reason that products like these are marketed specifically towards women?

(For all posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)


Korean Sociological Image #2: Son Dambi, The Perfect Woman

(Source: Paranzui)

Updated, October 2013

My previous commentary on this “Today’s Tea” commercial was woefully out of date, so it’s since been mercifully deleted(!). But many of the themes expressed remain just as potent in the Korean media today, including the encouraging of teenage girls and children to be dissatisfied with their bodies; the constant invention of new, often impossible, body shapes and “lines” for females of all ages to strive for; the over-reliance on celebrity endorsements, to the extent that the one chosen here, Son Dam-bi, is portrayed as somehow having a superior body and face to an equally-attractive, almost identical woman; and finally, albeit admittedly minor here, the reinforcement of gendered dieting roles by portraying the (single) male humorously—confirming that dieting is something only women need should be serious about.

Think I’m exaggerating? Just see for yourself:

Those problems aside, note that the “34-쏙/ssok-34” is a clever wordplay on women’s “vital statistics” (bust/waist/hip measurements), with one use of the word “ssok” being to stress how concave something is. In fairness, it’s quite apt for a slimming product.

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)