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Olay Refuses to “Challenge What’s Possible” in Recent Commercial

June 26, 2012

A current television advertisement from Olay teases women with the promise of challenging unnatural standards of beauty, only to perpetuate those standards in the end.  The ad, for a kit that aids in the removal of facial hair, is part of an ongoing campaign from Olay that asks us to “Challenge What’s Possible.”  Like many such advertising slogans, Olay’s sounds weighty and profound but is ultimately just about buying things.  We’re used to that sort of superficiality from advertising, of course, but it’s especially deflating, at a time when many of us are trying to pose genuine challenges to our social requirements for appearance, for that “challenge” to fall so short.  This is a story about advertising, beauty, values, and social dialogue.

The reason this Olay ad is so disappointing is because it straightforwardly acknowledges the drawbacks of social beauty requirements—the real emotional and physical pain that accompany women’s striving for attractiveness—but refuses to “challenge” them in any real way.  The ad opens by showing a beautiful, young, slender—but inexplicably self-conscious—young woman hiding her face behind a supple, multicolored feather. Why is she so bashful?  Because of her (utterly imperceptible to the audience, of course) facial hair.  The voiceover explains the problem and poses a solution: “Feel facial hair is not flattering?  And the ways to remove it can be irritating?  You can challenge that . . . with new Olay Smooth Finish Facial Hair Removal Duo.”

The ad sounds so good initially, but then it lets us down in a big way.  At first, in those precious few moments before the product is introduced, the ad seems bold and encouraging: it seems to say that since facial hair makes women feel ugly and since removing it is painful, they can challenge that state of affairs—in other words, challenge the assumption that women have to be hairless in order to be attractive.  Such challenges, after all, have been a key part of the ongoing feminist effort to redefine women’s roles and move past stifling standards of beauty.  But as soon as the product drops, we understand that the thing that’s being challenged here isn’t the idea that women need to remove their body hair but merely the technique that they use to remove it.  That women want to be hairless is just treated as a given.  Some challenge, right?

Regrettably this ad isn’t unique; it’s only the latest example of advertising that flirts with the idea of women’s progress but negates it for commercial ends.  Author and media critic Jean Kilbourne was one of the first to call attention to this marketing technique in the 1970s. Kilbourne noticed the way that advertisers were co-opting language and themes from the contemporaneous women’s movement and injecting them—once drained of their political vigor, of course—into commercial pitches intended to tap into women’s yearning for change and progress.  For instance, Kilbourne has criticized the way in which “Virginia Slims equated women’s liberation and enslavement to tobacco with the trivializing slogan ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’”  Unlike Virginia Slims, obviously, Olay is not selling a dangerous and addictive product, but in the same way it ties liberation—in the guise of having women “challenge” their beauty rituals—to a product that doesn’t liberate women one iota.  And in doing so, it trivializes the very idea of women’s progress.

Trivialization, Kilbourne has argued, is central to the corporate co-optation of feminist language and values for the purposes of marketing.  Kilbourne laments the way in which ads have “turned the women’s movement into the quest for a woman’s product,” ultimately concluding that “Advertising is always about moving us away from anything that would help us find real change in our lives.”  It seems clear that Olay’s facial hair removal kit advertisement is co-opting the feminist theme of “challenging our ideas about beauty” only to steer us back toward the same old appearance ideals.  Instead of promoting a real change, like the rejection of the hairless beauty standard, Olay is happy to just have us focus on changing the fact that we aren’t yet buying one of their products.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not I saying that women who choose to remove their facial hair are somehow refusing progress, nor am I suggesting that letting one’s body hair grow is a necessary prerequisite for fighting gender inequities.  It seems to me that what a woman does with her facial hair is a pretty personal choice.  But that’s a big part of where the problem comes in with the present Olay ad – and with advertising generally: choice itself gets squeezed out.  In the real world, beauty standards are a hot topic that’s highly contested, but in the world of marketing, appearance ideals are taken for granted, and the narrow range of options, such that they are, is established through a consensus of traditional assumptions on the one hand and commercial values on the other.

Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has written a great deal about the way in which advertising impacts the way that we understand and deal with social issues by, for one thing, establishing and reinforcing the acceptable range of debate.  When all’s said and done, the Olay ad does just that by limiting the sort of “challenges” that we’re able to pose in regard to beauty standards.  It forestalls change, closes down discussion.  Klein argues that at its core, advertising “is about rigorously controlled one-way messages, sent out in their glossiest form, then hermetically sealed off from those who would turn that corporate monologue into a social dialogue.”  Keeping Klein in mind, we can conclude that ads like Olay’s, then, are so very troublesome not merely because they reinforce traditional beauty standards, and not only because they do so while co-opting the ideals of gender progress, but because they serve as a substitute for real discussion and negotiation of the issues surrounding beauty and appearance.  Despite Olay’s claims to “Challenge What’s Possible,” ads like theirs only serve, ultimately, to limit what’s possible.

If you want to know more:

  • Read Jean Kilbourne’s discussion of how marketers co-opt feminism in an interview with Jennifer Pozner for Salon here, and get more information on her renowned Killing Us Softly video series at her website.
  • Read Naomi Klein’s “Brand USA,” quoted here, and check out her own website.
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