The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign is the ugliest thing on the Internet today


For a span of several grating hours Tuesday, Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter.

Ladies on Twitter, research has shown, tend to say a lot of negative things about beauty and their bodies. So during this campaign, which Dove and Twitter launched jointly Sunday, Dove decided it would intervene: tweeting unsolicited messages of affirmation to any and every lady who posted a negative thing about her body.

As a marketing stunt, #SpeakBeautiful is pretty smart. As a Twitter partnership, it’s certainly novel. But as a milestone in our evolving relationship with the corporate brand, #SpeakBeautiful is terrifying: a huge and unskeptical step toward the total anthropomorphization and humanization of the for-profit company.

Look at it this way: Dove, the consumer brand, is owned by the monster multinational Unilever1. Corporations like Unilever2 were once distant, capitalist entities, enticing customers through sales and contests and free things. (Lucky Peach had a recent feature on ’90s McDonald’s Monopoly — a gimmick that, to our modern eyes, seems both quaint and naive.) Later, in the social media age, Unilever3wanted to be your friend. But now corporations — unfulfilled by the passive, nonreciprocal loose ties of Internet friendship — want to be something more authoritative. Say, the friend you turn to with your problems. Your benign guardian.

Dove, like Coke three weeks ago, has appointed itself the Internet’s positivity police.

In some ways, of course, this is a natural evolution, an intensification of the trend toward corporate accounts with “voice” or “humor” or “personality.” And while it’s easy — so, so easy — to make fun of a company taking to Twitter to say “bae” or “fleek” or #makeithappy, the absurdity masks a creeping, insidious repositioning of corporate America in public life. Already, massive corporations exercise special privileges in politics and the economy. Now Dove would like to tell you that it — it, massive consumer brand, owned by Unilever4 — knows what’s best for you, even better than you do.

Its tweets are narcotic, soothing. Don’t question Dove. Dove loves you. Dove is your attentive friendaddressing you by name.

The only purpose of this cooing, of course, is to lull consumers into a sense of intimacy so human, so convincing, that you forget that Dove is actually trying to sell you something; that in fact, Dove only exists on this planet to sell you things, and that Dove’s pursuit of sales occasionally involves behavior you may find offensive and/or unsavory.

Just last year, for instance, Dove’s corporate parent promised not to advertise on any sites in the Gawker network because Gawker sites covered Gamergate critically. (Gamergate, n: [1] a campaign of harassment against women in the gaming industry; [2] a thing that did not, in any remote way, “speak beautifully.”)

Critics have pointed out that Unilever5 pedals women’s empowerment through Dove, while simultaneously affirming objectification on its brother brand, Axe. In India, Unilever6 is a major supplier of skin bleaching and lightening creams, controversial products that support a white standard of beauty. And even Dove’s empowerment push has been something of a mess: As the sociologist Jenny Davis writes at Cyborgology, telling a woman how much her appearance matters isn’t exactly feminist. In fact, it shames a woman for publicly expressing her feelings, as part of an ad campaign, without her consent.

That’s ultimately what makes #SpeakBeautiful such an uncanny, egregious overstep, far more so than “Real Beauty” or any of Dove’s other faux-empowerment campaigns. Sure, all advertising is inherently manipulative. But traditional ads are broadcast from one company to many people, via impersonal mediums like newspapers and TV screens. With #SpeakBeautiful, Dove presumes a highly intimate, one-to-one relationship with women who don’t necessarily want anything to do with the company, and it inserts its brand messaging directly into their Twitter streams.

It’s invasive, and condescending, to a degree that even Dove’s notoriously patronizing ad campaigns don’t usually reach. But because the whole mess masquerades as “brand engagement” — all cute slang and jokey hashtags and other herrings meant to decorporatize this very corporate thing — we’re supposed to overlook the overstep. (I mean, what kind of monster criticizes positivity? Just by virtue of being fun and young and light-hearted — like you and me! — corporations hiding behind their Twitter masks are supposed to be exempt from scrutiny.)

It would not, however, appear that many people have fallen for that gag. Even as @Dove continues bleating its “healthy” messages into unsuspecting women’s Twitter feeds, women are tweeting back — largely annoyed, incredulous things.

That may come as a surprise to some companies, which think — make that, pretend to think — you’re BFFLs to the end.

1. FYI, Unilever made $6.26 billion in profits last year.
2. Its shares are currently trading at $43.15 apiece.
3. Unilever estimates that 2 billion people use its products on "any given day."
4. The company recently bought two additional soap brands from Procter & Gamble.
5. The company has said it expects bigger sales in personal care this year.
6. From the Facebook page of Unilever's "Fair and Lovely," a skin bleach popular in India: "Smile, no matter what." Okay!