Editorial Illustration. Pictured: Woman looking in a mirror applying makeup with a sponge.

Selling Body Positivity — Five Reasons It’s So Hard To Get Right

It’s been eight years, and the cosmetics industry is still getting hammered by activists for offensive or problematic advertisements. But I’m beginning to think we should be cutting each other a little slack.

It’s been eight years, and the cosmetics industry is still getting hammered by activists for offensive or problematic advertisements. But I’m beginning to think we should be cutting each other a little slack.

Marketing has never been about social change. And it’s weird we expect it to solve the world’s problems.

Example of Feedback recieved during the Dove Real Beauty Bottles Campaign. Left: Four different shaped bottles ofDove body wash meant to represent different body types. Right: Retweet by @katejhewson of Dove beauty bottles. Tweet: The #dove body positive shower gels make me feel so much better because I've always been insecure about the flip-top cap in my tiny head.
Dove Body Positive Shower Gels - Response

For years, the industry has relied on encoding negative messages about how we dress, how we look and ultimately, how we should feel about ourselves.

It’s simply easier to sell buyers your solution once they believe they have a problem. This is why I’m so fascinated by the rise of body-positivity messaging in advertising.

Makeup-free social media posts and an increase in model diversity are the regurgitated ideas of a social movement packaged for consumption.

The Canadian cosmetics market, alone, is valued at approximately 20 billion CAD and climbs steadily every year. 

But, while the vehicle marketers use to attract interest and sales may have gotten a fresh coat of paint, the purpose remains the same.

To sell products and services.

This new subversion tactic, while very successful, comes with a unique set of challenges for industry professionals. 

And it can’t all be chalked up to misogyny or being tone-deaf.

#1. We Expect Complex Ideas In 115 Characters Or Less

The compact targetted nature of an ad makes it difficult to discuss something like body image with all the nuance required.

In an ideal world, brands shouldn’t have to solve complex social issues to sell body wash. And yet the modern consumer treats every brand like a Miss America Pageant contestant.

Look no further than the backlash People recieved for their well intentioned but poorly executed #ShareYourSize campaign.

#ShareYourSize ummm ok. we aren’t supposed to “limit” ourselves numbers but let’s POST A PIC LITERALLY LIMITED TO A NUMBER😎 @people

— Allison (@Pistolallie) May 11, 2016

#2. The Myth of a One Size Fits All Body In Creative Briefs.

Victoria Secrets The Perfect Body Ad. Image: Seven tall, thin women in lingerie. Title: The Perfect "Body". Subtitle: Perfct fit. Perfect comfort. Perfectly soft. Explore the collection.
Victoria Secrets "The Perfect Body" Ad

What do Protein World’s Beach Body Ready campaign and the infamous Victoria’s Secret, The Perfect Body debacle, have in common? They were both lambasted by critics for pushing a specific image of the modern woman.

It’s one thing to encourage someone to feel good about a brand new pair of jeans. Suggesting that there is only one way to look if you want to suntan at the beach is a costly miscommunication.

The language copywriters use paired with the images an art director selects can take an innocuous statement and turn it into something insulting and problematic with minimal effort.

#3. Lack of Representation Can Be A Symptom of Customer Profiling.

Often, to be more inclusive, brands cross the line into reverse shaming or unintentional racism.

When the demographic you have built a customer base with is represented by a specific body type, gender or ethnic group, overcompensation is common.

Rolling out a “real women have curves” campaign or employing plus size models for your ads can be a great idea in theory.

Unless you don’t sell plus size clothing or your creative team lacks the experience required to nail a sensitive topic. Just making an unusual casting choice isn’t enough anymore.

As advertisers, we aren’t merely crafting inclusive messaging. We are fighting decades of ads that fed off negative stereotypes and perpetuated attitudes that are no longer deemed acceptable by polite society.

#4. Stereotypes Are The Crutches That Help Us Write More For Less.

Example of An Ad That Recieved Critisim For Being Offensive. Title: If I Start To Look Sexy, Book A Taxi. Subtitle: Don't make bad decisions because you have had one too many! Don't drive under the influence, book a taxi with us.
City Fox - Book a Taxi Ad

The overbearing housewife, the incompetent husband. These and many other stereotypes exist as convenient shorthand advertisers have used for years to convey an idea quickly.

Stereotypes are the foundation for several groundbreaking campaigns. Who would Snickers even be without their, “you’re not you when you’re hungry” ads?

But somewhere around the time Always unveiled their “like a girl” campaign, we collectively realized that the era of self-aware media was imminent. And this shift turned everything on its head.

Now, stereotypes are not subverted simply to show a dramatization of a product or service’s effect on our daily lives. Today, stereotypes must be inverted with the masterful genius of a post-modern, self-referential butterfly.


Aerie — #aeriereal Models

#5. The Modern Obsession With Reality Has Commandeered Fun.

People don’t dream about having a flat stomach. People want to be loved, desired and enjoy their lives to the fullest. Good copywriters understand that.

For years marketers have honed the craft into an art form. I say art form because the intention has never been to sell reality.

Advertising has always been a tool to paint a picture of what life could be like with a specific product or service.

The more outlandish the dream, the better.

The Problem Is Very Simple.

As graphic designers and photographers, we know that stray hairs, uneven facial features and stretch marks are a part of life. As copywriters, we know that bold is the attitude you wear and not the shade of your lipstick.

Yet, parents and young children interpret the dreams we manufacture to be reality. Or at least the reality they are expected to live up to and cannot reasonably achieve.

It’s this disconnect more than any other issue that has forced marketers to consider the ethical implications of the work they do.

While consumers have a responsibility to think critically about their purchasing decisions, we can and should meet them halfway. But it’s going to be a learning process for everyone involved.

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