I was in high school the year Dove launched their Campaign for Real Beauty. I remember it because the launch week corresponded with a trip to Toronto for one of my classes. When we got off the subway, there in front of us was a billboard of five "real women" in their underwear, stretch marks included. Beautiful women, yes. Rail-thin, no. One of my male classmates took one glance at the poster and said, "Gross, somebody take that down."
His comment emphasized it was an important campaign. Dove was pushing back at our culture's obsession with size 2, 6-foot women, and validating women who don't fit that mold. Dove was, in some way, giving permission to women to love their bodies, no matter the size. The campaign was, I think, so well received because this message was a breath of fresh air in a stifling culture of unattainable, and often unhealthy, expectations.
So you can imagine my disappointment the day I discovered that Dove is owned by Unilever, and Unilever also owns Axe. Axe is known for their racy advertisements featuring oversexed women with bedroom eyes and provocative poses whose desire is only for the lucky Axe user. It was discouraging to understand that the Campaign for Real Beauty was simply a marketing ploy. The idea of loving your body? Women ate it up, sales soared. Perhaps this is obvious, since Dove's objective is to sell beauty products, but I had somehow imagined the company to be full of people who were passionate about working to break down the objectification and sexualisation of women.
Unilever is pumping out two completely contradictory messages. On one end of the spectrum, they are campaigning to break the molds and move beyond the objectification of women. But at the exact same time, they are reinforcing these structures and systems with some of the most scandalous advertisements you can find on TV and in magazines.
And to Unilever's delight, both marketing campaigns work. They play to discrete audiences. Unilever has built up followings with opposite ideals. Both campaigns were successful because they found reference points that their audiences could and would relate to.
Isn't that what culture is: shared reference points? They are what allow us to walk down a busy sidewalk without bumping into those coming in the opposite direction. Because of these cultural expectations, we can hold a conversation, knowing how far to stand from each other and when and how often to make eye contact.
Cultural reference points change over time. As an idea takes hold and more and more people choose a particular way of seeing something, a new normal can be created. In a few decades, or even just a few years, a social issue can move from one end of the spectrum to the other. Something that was not disputed or even discussed 50 years ago can move so quickly in another direction that holders of previous beliefs can soon be considered old-fashioned, bigoted, wrong.
Reference points are reinforced or broken down by small decisions we make every single day. "Normal" is created by each member of a society; but all of our actions work to either reinforce or evolve what is "normal."
Reference points are susceptible to flash, to glitter, and to marketing campaigns, because they are the aggregate decisions of vulnerable humans.
"True" is not "normal." They are not equals. Unilever sells (or makes) "normal."
"Truth" is not the opinion of the majority, no matter how many billboards Unilever buys. Finding and following truth often means going against the majority, looking away from those comfortable reference points. But it is only truth that pins us, and only in seeking it that we stop being "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching."