BY AMY Z. QUINN
Can a commercial, through sheer innovation and noble message, exceed its own status as a cheap marketing tool and become art? Or at the very least an important, buzz-worthy cultural artifact? “Onslaught,” Dove’s latest advert-cum-girlpower call to arms, sure gives it the old college try. It’s the follow-up to the legendarily creepy “Evolution,” which showed how an average-looking model is transformed, through the magic of beauty products and Photoshop, into a diva staring imperiously from a billboard ad.
Like its sister video, “Onslaught” isn’t meant for the TV airwaves, aside from snippets in the TV news stories you’ll see once it seeps that far into the mainstream. Both films were made by something called the “Dove Self Esteem Fund,” which smacks a bit of “scholarship competition,” but thankfully, only a little bit. (I’m totally getting the “My Beauty Rocks!” iron-ons!) Still, its overall message — that the “beauty industry” is coming for your little girls, and the other women in their lives can help them find ways to feel good about themselves which don’t include plucking, waxing, injecting, starving or otherwise manipulating our bodies — is delivered, helped along by decent music (Simian’s “La Breeze“).
The video is clearly meant not for girls, but for the older women whose actions and attitudes about our own bodies leave fingerprints on theirs — and who, not coincidentally, buy the soap. It’s important not to forget that as powerful as the video is — and it is, horrifyingly so — the goal is not really to save your daughters or to make you feel good about yourself, it’s to steer you toward Dove products next time you go down the Health and Beauty Aides Aisle. Soap is essentially soap, and people buy it for reasons other than the fact that it cleans better than another brand. You select it from the two dozen other equally adequate soaps because because you have a coupon for it, or because you like the little scratchy bits of oatmeal, or because you think Irish cable-knit sweaters are sexy, or because it gives you a vaguely good feeling about yourself.
Still, Dove hasn’t ever really advertised itself as something that will make you more beautiful, just more possessing of baby-soft skin, though there are plenty of folks willing to call parent company Unilever a bunch of hypocrites. I’m over that.
Watching “Onslaught” again this morning, I kept thinking about another girl, roughly the same age as the strawberry-blond tween in the video, whom I’d seen on CNN about an hour before. This girl had been beaten up in a middle-school bathroom by the Mean Girl On Campus, while another one filmed the attack and promptly posted it on YouTube. Sitting next to the victim as she told the Tony Harris what happened was her big sister, there not so much to stick up for the girl but to be next to her while she stuck up for herself. That leaves fingerprints, too.