Monday, September 10, 2007

Beauty and madness

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

The television ad for this brand of shampoo begins with a voice announcing that no makeup was used in the commercial. It then moves on to display lush, midnight black, straight, and tangle-free hair on four individuals whose faces are turned against the camera.

Nothing new there; it is still the same tired old pitch for this rather ridiculous notion of what is supposedly the “ideal” hair, which as we all know has no semblance whatsoever to reality. There is no way that anyone’s hair will ever come close to looking like those without the aid of industrial grade blowers, special lighting, and computer graphics softwares. And certainly not just by using a particular shampoo no matter how many gallons of the stuff is slobbered and lathered on one’s mane.

But one-by-one, the “models” turn around to reveal the twist: The models are people who don’t conform to the standard definition of beauty as dictated by advertising agencies and by media. One of them is in fact a man, and hardly the Aga Muhlach or Sam Milby type.

There is another version of the ad, but it pursues the same inspired idea and features the same bunch of “ordinary” people.

Several months ago, a number of billboards sprouted along major thoroughfares advertising the search for, believe it or not, “Miss Ugly No More.” The title of the search already gave us a hint of the special qualifying criterion required in terms of aesthetic attributes. The giant pictures did not disappoint; they showed the most unflattering mugs conceivable of the four finalists.

Apparently, no one complained of political incorrectness. The people behind the search, which is a cosmetic surgery and skin center, succeeded in their quest as billboards of the winner eventually replaced the old ones.

The ads do not detail what exactly was done to the finalists to deserve the privilege of being called Miss Ugly No More. But one can safely assume that developing self-esteem intrinsically was not one of them.

Of course, Dove pulled the rug from everyone else when the makers of the soap launched their global “Campaign for Real Beauty” last year.

The campaign aimed to challenge the common stereotype and in its place present a broader more democratic picture of beauty. Thus, for a change, we saw pictures of women of all ages, shapes, and ethnic backgrounds flaunting their various imperfections in those billboards instead of the usual bevy of the perfect blemish-, cellulite-, and flab-free women.
Brave attempts at challenging the stereotypical concept of beauty?

Are we finally witnessing a counterculture movement where beauty is being positioned as a construct that is free from the pressures of commercial considerations?

Can we all now heave a sigh of relief at the thought that people can celebrate individual uniqueness as individuals?

Are advertisements finally teaching people that beauty is really and truly only skin deep?
I am afraid not.

These and the handful of other similar ads may feature people who defy the common conventions of beauty, but they are far from empowering.

Take the case of the shampoo ad. The real intent of the ad, other than to sell shampoo, is debatable. There are those who are offended by what they consider as brazen exploitation and mockery of the physical attributes of the people featured in the ad. And then, there are those who see healthy humor in the whole thing and accuse those who take offense as uptight reactionaries who can’t take a joke.

The ad is probably meant to be cute and funny and I am sure there are those who do find it as such; never mind if the amusement is at the expense of those people. True, the ad does not make a direct commentary on the facial attributes of those people. But the way those people are presented together says a lot. It can even be argued that the choice of those people, individually and as a group, is an exercise in reverse discrimination.

Those people, and the contestants in that quest for Miss Ugly No More were not deliberately picked and lumped together to bring home the message that it is okay to look “just the way you are.”

They were picked to perpetuate the notion that beauty is about enhancing certain attributes through the use of certain products whose real value is questionable.

So in the end, it really is just another creative way of selling a product and the use of those people is just another ingenious way of attracting attention. Put another way, the whole thing is driven by greed and profit.

And, for crying out loud, can someone please tell me what is the connection between the facial attributes of a person and selling shampoo? I still have trouble seeing the connection between Piolo Pascual’s perfectly sculpted body and coffee, between Roxanne Guinoo’s red bikini and whiskey, and between Anne Curtis’ pretty face and beer.

Unfortunately, we’ve all been conditioned to associate pretty faces and beautiful bodies with advertising. If we are to push the envelope further, we’ve even been conditioned to accept partial nudity as a valid form of selling products even if the connection between the scantily and provocatively clad human being and the product is a stretch.

The Dove campaign tried to ignite a debate about what comprises real beauty by asking people to vote through texting on the question. I never really got to find out what the final results were and if the campaign succeeded in challenging the stereotype, but the makers of the soap have gone back to featuring the same perfect-looking specimens of humanity in their new ads. I guess we can presume that the campaign was simply what it was—a marketing trick that eventually ran its course.

My friends in the advertising profession tell me that they are just giving in to the demand, that that is the concept of beauty that sells. They tell me that even media is guilty of perpetuating the stereotype. I agree. Another friend who works as producer in a television network told me that they have strict marching orders to pick celebrities, models, and good-looking people as guests in their shows. Even in variety shows, cameras do tend to scan the audience and zero in mainly on good-looking people.

We do have a distorted concept of beauty and we continue to fortify this distortion in various ways.

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