ANALYZING ADVERTISING: A Controversial Ad from Dove

June 8, 2011

Students write about and discuss an ad that has raised issues about beauty, race, and skin color, and consider the role of advertising in reflecting and shaping attitudes.

To the Teacher

Ads are everywhere: TV, newspapers, magazines, billboards, websites. But most people, (with the possible exception of social studies and English language arts teachers!) don't give them much thought. Ads would be worth our focused attention if for no other reason than their ubiquity. But in addition to that, ads provide valuable teachable moments.

  • Ads are one of the foundations of the modern capitalist economy. What role do they play in the cycle of supply and demand?
  • Ads aim to convince people to buy things. How do they function as persuasive texts?
  • Ads draw on underlying, but often unspoken, attitudes and beliefs. What are those attitudes and beliefs? How do ads perpetuate, and perhaps help shape, them?

This activity provides one controversial advertisement for students to analyze and use as a springboard for addressing these questions. After they analyze the ad, they will have a chance to read about what others have said about it, to think more broadly about the role advertising plays in American society, and to decide where they stand on the controversy.

Goals:

  • To analyze the composition and persuasive techniques used in an advertisement
  • To recognize underlying values expressed in an advertisement
  • To hypothesize about why certain values appear in an ad
  • To explain what an ad reveals about American society

Part I: Write and discuss

Give every student a copy of the ad (here's a pdf version), and then ask them to count off by threes. Ask them to write answers to the question below that correlates with the number they gave when they counted off. Explain that they won't turn their answers in; but thinking and writing about the questions will help prepare them to participate in the class discussion.

1. Describe how you view the ad by listing, in order, the first thing you notice, the second thing, the third thing, and so on, until you have looked at everything in the ad. For each step in your viewing process, write what drew you to look at that element of the ad. For example, if the first thing you noticed was the group of three women, why do you think you went there first?

2. Ads aim to sell products. What product is this an ad for? How does the ad do its job of persuading a viewer to buy the product? If the ad doesn't persuade you, explain how you think it's trying to persuade you and why the strategy hasn't worked for you.

3. Ads usually appeal to commonly held values and beliefs. What values and beliefs does this ad appeal to? For example, the ad assumes that women want to look beautiful. It also assumes that skin is an important element of beauty.

When students are done writing, ask them to go and sit with two other people who have the same number they have, and who answered the same question. Have groups discuss their answers to the question. If they have different answers, have them explain their thinking to each other. Remind them that there can be more than one right answer!

Reconvene the whole class, and consider together all three questions. Have people who answered each question share answers. By the time you're finished, everyone in the class should be familiar with all three questions.
 

Part 2: Where Do You Stand?

Tell students that the ad they have been looking at has proven to be controversial, raising questions about advertising, attitudes, gender, race, and skin color.

Now they will have a chance to explore the controversy and consider their own point of view. Below is a list of opinions about this ad that were adapted from those posted on websites. (They're adapted to a) make them more focused for class discussion, and b) eliminate inappropriate language.)

Designate one side of the classroom as "strongly agree" and the opposite side as "strongly disagree." Ask students to stand up and move to the appropriate place somewhere along this continuum, depending on their own opinion about the statements below. (If you don't have time for all the questions, select just a few.)

After each statement, give students a chance to position themselves. Then give them a minute to talk with each other about why they are standing where they are. Then ask each group of students to explain to the other groups why they are standing where they are. Afterwards, give students a chance to change their position if their view has changed.

1. It's clear this ad is based on marketing research—they're selling something they know people want.

2. It's human nature: no one is happy. White people want to be darker; dark people want to be lighter.

3. White society, exemplified by advertising, thinks it's better to be white than to be black.

4. It's just an ad! Get over it!

5. There is a consequence to holding up white as the standard of beauty, as advertising often does.

6. If people didn't buy the products, companies wouldn't make them.

7. The ad intentionally suggests that "before" is black and heavy-set, while "after" is white and thin.

8. If more blacks and Latinos worked in the advertising industry, ads like this wouldn't appear.
 


Conclusion: Communicate your view

Dove issued the following statement about the ad:

"We believe that real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and ages and are committed to featuring realistic and attainable images of beauty in all our advertising. We are also dedicated to educating and encouraging all women and girls to build a positive relationship with beauty, to help raise self-esteem and to enable them to realize their full potential.

The ad is intended to illustrate the benefits of using Dove VisibleCare Body Wash, by making skin visibly more beautiful in just one week. All three women are intended to demonstrate the 'after' product benefit. We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience."

Ask students to write a response to Dove, supporting your position with at least three carefully worded arguments. Encourage students who feel strongly to send their letters to the company.

Letters can be sent snail mail to:

Dove Consumer Services
920 Sylvan Avenue
Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632


This lesson was written by Julie Weiss for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to Morningside Center at: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.