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Something Stinks with Dove’s New #freethepits Campaign

by | Sep 23, 2023 | Op Ed

New Yorkers may have noticed the new ad campaign by Dove while walking around the city last month. #Freethepits is everywhere, supposedly reclaiming and reducing the insecurity women feel about their armpits. Times Square, The Garment District, and all the subway billboards are plastered with slogans like “Does Hair make you stare?” “Uncomfortable? She isn’t.” and “Care for Underarms. Not what others think of them.”

September is the start of New York Fashion Week, making it a prime time for brands like Dove to launch their new advertisement campaigns. With these subway ads, a quippy hashtag, and the help of Dove pop-up stands – or “pit stops”— giving away free merch and MTA cards, it makes sense that the ad campaign has gotten lots of praise online in the last few days in the press.

If Dove’s ad campaign was the final drop in the bucket of confidence you needed to bare your armpits with pride, that’s great! But it’s important to understand that Dove cares more about your wallet than your pits. Dove is not aspiring to create a social movement that makes women feel confident unless they are spearheading the ‘movement’ with their own merchandise. 

The first red flag is that for a campaign that claims to be about not judging armpits, especially unshaved ones, there’s not a single bushy armpit in the bunch. At most, there’s a slight hint of stubble.

Ad images of Dove’s #Freethepit campaign sourced from Ogilvy

It’s no coincidence that Dove has chosen NYC and Times Square to debut #freethepits when this is a central location to #freethenipple protests. And with women’s freedom to go topless, or even braless still being a controversial social issue, it feels as if Dove has chosen to appropriate one women’s liberation movement in the name of creating their own social media campaign.

Dove’s #freethepit campaign is just the latest, local example in what is called Commodity Feminism, also known as “Femvertising” and “Empowertising.” 

Commodity Feminism

Commodity Feminism refers to the way companies will align themselves to feminist ideas and imagery, all because it will help them sell more products. Similar to how companies use Greenwashing to create a false public image of being eco-friendly, companies use feminist buzzwords to sell products to women, such as alway’s #likeagirl campaign.

If you’re not thinking too hard about it, these campaigns may seem full of liberal or progressive ideas, but keep in mind these are giant multi-billion dollar companies. These movements come out of allegiance to their investors, not grassroots activism. Logically, it only benefits companies to keep women, their main clientele, happy and buying. If dissing women would have made these companies money instead, you can bet they would have.

The way these commercials work is to associate women’s power in society with their buying power. Since women have money, they have power, and with this money they can buy things to pamper themselves. 

These ‘pamper products’ tend to be geared towards unpleasant ‘luxuries’ like shaving, waxing, disguising odors, and dieting- all things to make a woman more conventionally sexually attractive, if not to men, then at least themselves. This in turn increases a woman’s self confidence. Femvertising creates the illusion of an equal society, where the more money women spend, the more power they have. 

Often, this ‘type’ of ‘feminism’ is targeted at middle to upper class, heterosexual white women and neglects the experiences of BIPOC, trans, and disabled women. But where there’s money to be made, the ‘inclusion’ will eventually follow, if femvertising is not an example in itself!

A deodorant by any other name would smell just as sweet. Whether you call it Commodity Feminism, Femvertising, or Empoweritsing, the fact remains that the visual and written language of this advertising still is meant to obscure how Dove is still marketing off the insecurities of women.

How Feminist is Dove, Really?

In the same survey that Dove sources to use as slogans and quotes for its advertising campaign, “80% of women believe society promotes an ‘ideal’ underarm; most say the ‘ideal’ underarm should be hairless, smooth, odorless, and even-toned.” (Dove Underarm Confidence Survey).

You don’t see the mention of anything other than hair in Dove’s slogans because… well, to encourage women to not judge armpits based on odor would be a bit counterintuitive to the interests of a deodorant company.

This isn’t the first time Dove and OgiIvy’s partnership has encountered controversy for their ads. In fact, the debut of the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty ” in 1994 is considered to be one of the first ‘Femvertising’ Campaigns.  As part of the “ Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” there is no digital retouching in any ads, and all photographs are approved by women. And yet, in their casting calls, Dove has continually searched for women with “no tattoos, perfect skin,[and] bodies that aren’t too curved or too athletic.

In this new #freethepits campaign, we see that the ‘no tattoos’ rule has been lifted, but the models chosen still fit within a restrictive standard of beauty (light, clear, unwrinkled skin and uncontroversial body types.)

And for an ad campaign based in New York City, there are no South or East Asian women featured in the photographs, with South Asian/ Brown girls being one of the primary demographics in America historically especially to be ostrasized for having body hair. The ad campaign also didn’t consider representing anybody older or visually disabled.

Compared to the other full upper body shots of the ad campaign, there is one close up of an ethnically ambiguous woman that perhaps is meant to serve as an all encompassing diversity figure for any body that wasn’t otherwise represented. 

Femvertising aside, when we dig a little deeper and recognize that Dove is the baby of its much larger parent company, Unilever, Dove’s integrity regarding its pro-women campaign seems compromised Unilever has come under fire for human rights issues in its supply chain, including slavery and forced child labor in palm oil and cocoa plantations.

I’m all for freeing the pits, but I think Dove should work on liberating people – or not enslaving them– before it “liberates” women’s armpits.

If you’re interested in learning more about Commodity Feminism, I recommend “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of A Sensibility” by Rosalind Gill, where I sourced much of the information about commodity feminism in this article. I also sourced information from “The Rise of Femvertising: Authentically Reaching Female Consumers” by Elisa Becker-Herby.