Mad Women

Are We Living in an Age of Ad Atonement?

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This week, Pantene released their “Not Sorry” ad, perfectly illustrating a bad habit many women commit frequently: unnecessary apologizing. Through a montage of everyday, benign situations at work and at home, we see woman after woman apologize for simple tasks that the men sharing the scene hardly register. It’s Pantene’s second #ShineOn ad, a platform geared towards empowering women — a mission that solely belonged to Dove’s Real Beauty ad campaign for more than ten years. Considering the beauty industry’s history banking off of women’s insecurities, it would seem that ads are undergoing an age of atonement.

The mechanics of fashion and beauty product advertisements are nothing new. They’re made to sell a product and, as a result, they sell female insecurity. Over the years, these ads spoke to a wife’s subservience to her husband, made a woman’s life’s goal to get a man, and told young girls that her physical differences prevented her from being beautiful and sexy. In 2007, comedian Sarah Haskins launched a series on CurrentTV called “Target Women,” a comedic look at the ridiculous nature of ads specifically geared towards women — the twin set-wearing, yogurt-swallowing masses. Blogs like Jezebel dedicated entire series to pointing out the impossible standards of women in advertisements with their “Photoshop of Horrors” franchise. Studies have shown that by simply looking at a photograph placed in an advertisement (as opposed to just a photo), women begin to have feelings of inadequacy. Both female consumers and the media are wising up to their game, looking at the messages in commercials or print ads a little more critically, which sort of forced companies to serve up something a little more substantial than their product. Though that’s really not the only reason to do it.

The ad doesn’t necessarily need to plug the product, but it creates a symbiotic good for the company and the consumer. The company gets viral attention and brownie points, while giving the consumer a hard, long think. The ads all intend for an open communication and exposure between consumer and product — just look at how many ask consumers to Tweet with a specific hashtag or send in a video. The model might not be completely altruistic, but at least the companies are confronting deeper insecurities in a positive way as these recent ads have shown us.

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” April 2013

Dove Real Beauty ads usually gets us all talking, parodying, or slamming (like this year’s “Beauty Patch” video). With more than 63 million views, Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” video from last year showed us just how negatively women see themselves versus the reality.

Pantene Philippines’ “Labels,” November 2013

Pantene’s first #ShineOn ad was a haunting comparison of labels associated with men versus women in the workplace, and the brand did two other commercials talking to Filipino celebrities about their negative labeling — one actress even being called a “waste” for having a child out of wedlock. Unlike Dove’s atonement ads, Pantene’s #ShineOn campaign doesn’t focus on female beauty but confronts the gender dichotomy head on.

Aerie’s untouched #AerieReal print ads, February 2014


This year, American Eagle’s lingerie sister brand, aerie, took on body issues by featuring un-Photoshopped models in their Spring print ads. The goal was to confront young women’s body confidence, citing that many studies proved they are influenced heavily by media exposure. Stores prominently displayed the ads in their windows and many teen magazines ran the prints.

Cover Girl’s #GirlsCan, February 2014

Unlike Dove campaigns, Cover Girl’s #GirlsCan video went a different route, using celebrities rather than real women. (Not that celebrities aren’t real women, of course. They’re just prettier, shinier, and have different resources to get there.) Stars like Ellen DeGeneres, Janelle Monae, Katy Perry, and Queen Latifah deliver an erratic pep talk. The message is pretty straight forward: they want to help girls change “can’t” into “can.” Unlike Dove or Pantene, the ad doesn’t go through a specific narrative, which doesn’t do well for viral shares but at least still imparts a positive message.

Dermablend Professional’s Camo Confessionals, April 2014

Unlike the other atonement ads, Dermablend Professional’s Camo Confessional campaign toes a fine line by showcasing the product and sharing stories of women with severe skin conditions. Two women speak about dealing with severe acne or vitiligo in public and wipe their faces clear of makeup, endorsing the product for helping their inner selves “shine through.” Adweek said this ad “isn’t about vanity; it’s about freeing oneself from ridicule and living a normal life.” The campaign asked other women to share their Camo Confessionals to create a community discussion.