Beauty and the death of zero sum

Dove_1 Virginia Postrel has a great post today on Dove’s "real beauty" campaign (pictured).  In her clear eyed way, she takes issue with the notion that we should consider everyone beautiful.  She insists that it is more accurate, more sensible to see that differences of beauty exist and that these differences confer relative advantage in the world. 

I think this is right, and that it has the corrective effect Postrel intends.  Some heart felt notions about the world render us incapable of thinking about it clearly.  This is bad for many reasons, and especially because it frustrates our efforts to understand the operation (and interaction) of factors anthropological and economic. Advantage and a certain social capital is apportioned according to relative beauty, and culture decides, to some extent, what this beauty is.   

On the other hand, I think that we may be seeing a general shift here. If we are rethinking beauty, I think this might be because we are rethinking value.  Our culture is changing. 

There are three propositions at work in the world of beauty:

1. beauty contest

The old fashioned one, the beauty contest notion, says that beauty is distributed with almost perfect clarity.  Relative beauty makes for a single, steep, zero sum hierarchy.  There may be some points of contestation, but generally speaking, we could line up all the women (and men) in the world, from the most beautiful to the least.

2. many kinds of beauty

The second proposition says there are "many kinds of beauty."  In this case, we suppose that there many dimensions of beauty and that each of these may be used to fashion a different hierarchy.  If it’s all about elegance, then one hierarchy results.  If it’s all about voluptuousness, another.  And so on.

I think in the real world we oscillate between these propositions. Ideally, we think of beauty as something absolute.  Practically, we are hard pressed to show why Penelope Cruz should be considered more beautiful than, say, Aishwarya Rai or Audrey Hepburn.  We end up saying things like "well, it depends, you see, there are different kinds of beauty."

There is a strong form of proposition 2.  In this case, we all agree on a universe of beautiful women and then we organize this universe into different hierarchies according to the dimension in hand.  Cate Blanchett takes one contest.  Oprah takes another.  Angelina Jolie, a third. 

The weak form of proposition 2 says that there are many, many dimensions, and that it is possible to use them to give most women a claim to relative beauty.  This expands the universe of women with a claim to beauty, and it expands the number and the kind of dimensions that may be used to find them so.  I hope this is not demeaning, but I find that women who sell cosmetics in drug stores often fall into this category.  Quite often, they have a feature or two that are remarkable, and they are otherwise unexceptional.  Hippie beauty seemed to turn on this principal as well.

3. every woman is beautiful

The third proposition says that every woman is beautiful.  I think this is a question of using evaluative dimension in new ways or adding evaluative dimensions if necessary.  The defining phrase here is "every woman is beautiful in her own way." And I think this says that if there is no evaluation dimension, we will make one up.  Finally, if this doesn’t work, the proposition resorts to the notion that all women are beautiful because they are women.  The attack on  zero sum hierarchy is absolute and complete. 

I like the inclusiveness of this proposition 3.  It’s now up to all of us (and especially every male) to discover the beauty in a female companion, and this is an interesting, generous and generative way to proceed.  But I agree with Postrel.  The notion that "everyone is beautiful" violates the law of non-vacuous contrast according to which no assertion may refer to everything in its universe of discourse. More simply: if everyone is beautiful, how can anyone be beautiful?  If it isn’t relative, it isn’t real.

the death of zero sum 

But here’s the thing.  Zero sum is dying in our culture.  The notion that there is one single hierarchy of any kind is now in question.  No one knows this better than Virginia Postrel, whose pioneering work on dynamism helps us understand why this should be so.  Ours is a splintering culture.  Some of our new social species, punks and hippies say, arose precisely to take issue with conventional notions of beauty, and these groups leave in their wake new evaluative standards. 

The death of zero sum is especially evident on the internet where it turns out crowds matter more than elites.  The new media emerge and they create a multiplication of value, a new superfluidity of admiration. This may be because people are prepared to "pay themselves" in admiration they do not deserve…but if it works, it works.  There is nothing in the anthropological rule book that says that a culture may not make every individual an arbiter of his or her own value.  (And indeed the American psychological and therapeutic communities have been insisting on this approach to self esteem for some time.) 

Of course, we have all by this time seen enough delusional American Idol contestants to know how tragic the outcome of this cultural approach can sometimes be.  Still, it is possible for a culture to equip individuals with the right of self invention and self evaluation, and that is precisely what our culture has done, from the avant garde artist who perseveres with the conviction that some day that the world will see what he sees to the lonely entrepreneur who insists on her vision of the world in the face of an overwhelming indifference from the rest of world.  Our culture of creativity depends upon the destruction of zero sum evaluation.  And the more dynamic we become, the more surely we will and must move away from absolute hierarchies. 

As a Canadian coming south to Chicago in the 1970s, this struck me forcibly.  Americans were much more demanding of effort and accomplishment than my Canadians friends, but they were also much more prepared to expand the competitive domain to give everyone, or almost everyone, a place to play.  Being the best at something was important, but it was ok if you were merely taking gold at an obscure bowling tournament in the rural Midwest (which I am proud to say I did on several occasions.  Kidding.)  And that’s when I came to understand the penalty of being good at nothing at all in America.  I sometimes wonder if this is the unexamined motive of self destructive behavior (drug abuse, etc.).  In Canada it’s ok to be unexceptional.  In the US, God save you if this is so. 

America has always been relatively generous in supplying extra competitive domains and evaluative dimensions with which individuals could pursue the self esteem and social capital that success makes available.  And this was true before the advent of the plenitude and dynamism made possible by the new expressive domains (zines, blogs, home made music, transmedia, self made movies) that emerged in the 1990s.   But again Postrel knows this perfect well. 

The death of zero sum and the expansion of social capital has potentially explosive consequences for our culture. Elizabethan England makes this case quite well.   The likes of Shakespeare, Bacon, Sydney, Raleigh, Elizabeth herself made the world vibrate with new ideas.  There are lots of ways to explain this explosive cultural moment, but I wonder whether it was largely because Elizabethans had access to a sudden superfluidity of status.  There were new ways and new dimensions for claiming rank.  The (relative) decline of a zero sum social hierarchy had the effect of flooding the world with novelty.  Ours is a new Elizabethan age.

summing up

Here’s my argument.  The Dove campaign for real beauty and new ideas of beauty may be seen as a reflection of a larger culture shift.  In every domain of taste, we are seeing a willingness to expand the tools of judgment and the size of the winner’s circle.  Zero sum is dying as the logic of our evaluative activities.  As a result, our culture is entering a new multiplication of capital and creativity.  This is not to say that zero sum is dead in all sectors of our world.  It is just subject to new cultural forces here and there that blunt its prevalence and power.   


Postrel, Virginia.  2007.  The Truth About Beauty.  The Atlantic Monthly.  March. here
[this link is good for 3 days beginning February 13, 2007]

Postrel, Virginia. 2007.  Beauty is.  Dynamist Blog.  February 13, 2007.  here.

for the Dove campaign for real beauty, go here.   


I promise to get back to the pet post tomorrow. 

15 thoughts on “Beauty and the death of zero sum

  1. Justin Damer

    “The Dove campaign for real beauty and new ideas of beauty may be seen as a reflection of a larger culture shift. […] we are seeing a willingness to expand the tools of judgment and the size of the winner’s circle. Zero sum is dying as the logic of our evaluative activities.”

    Your article raises interesting ideas and was a pleasure to read, but ultimately, I disagree with your conclusions. I would posit that the death of zero-sum hierarchies doesn’t mean that everyone can be a winner, but rather, that no one can be certain of their loss or victory. So you’re although you’re right that a case can be made for almost anyone’s beauty, the inverse is also true—that is to say, anyone can be ugly. The result is that the game of winning isn’t easier, it’s harder, because the bar isn’t lower, it’s just moving so fast that no one knows where it is.

    In such a perplexing climate, Dove’s brand of affirmation marketing makes perfect business sense.

  2. Tom Asacker

    I think Justin has nailed it! The old definitions of “success” (e.g. wealth, status, beauty, etc.) and ultimately how they enhance our identities and make us feel good about ourselves, are now being challenged at every turn; e.g. advertign, reality television, etc.

    So what defines “success” today? Simple. Psychotherapeutic mumbo jumbo. 😉 You’re perfect the way you are: f’d up just like everyone else!

  3. John Deighton

    Let me pile on here. Virginia Postrel’s so clear-eyed that she’s looking right through the phenomenon. The point about Real Beauty is not that it’s wrong. It’s obviously wrong. The point is that it is wellmeaning. It speaks in sympathetic tones to the huddled masses yearning to be free of the beauty myth from which no freedom is possible. This is a brand that for 30 years played beauty straight, claiming functional superiority, relying on David Ogilvy’s unctuous response to Helena Rubinstein’s veto of soap-to-face contact, “Creams your skin while you wash.” As Dove grew from brand to masterbrand, it could have simply expanded the scope of its functional claims in the profitable because unwinable war on ugliness. Instead it decided to try truth and reconcilliation. It became a brand asserting a theory of beauty that promised peace. Not revenge, as Postrel seems to want, just a way to get away from the battle without having to feel like a coward and a loser.

  4. Virginia Postrel

    Two quick points, since I’m on deadline for another column: 1) It’s interesting that Dove is not in the cosmetics business, only various cleansers and creams. So it is strategically positioned to attack cosmetics. 2) In Ogilvy on Advertising there is a print ad for Dove that shows a woman in the bathtub, surrounded by Dove foam, talking to her husband on the phone in a way that makes the soap (yes, I’ll call it that) seem like some kind of aid to phone sex.

  5. steve

    We can certainly admit that the relation “more beautiful than” does not completely order the set of women. We can also admit that there is some horizontal differentiation in tastes, and even some taste for variety (I like seeing both Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett). But Dove is peddling a load of crap if it says “everybody is beautiful” in the everyday sense. You may become beautiful to someone who loves you and spends a lot of time with you, but that isn’t the kind of beauty Dove is promising.

    I agree that our society is very much moving in the direction of expanding the number of dimensions on which one can excel, the better to combine our otherwise contradictory loves for excellence and equality. The magic of incommensurability! (In activities where markets function, this cultural tendency works with economic forces for specialization and fragmentation and against economic forces of integration and scale.) But Dove is trying to counterfeit this non-zero-sumness where it doesn’t really apply.

    An interesting strategic wrinkle (no play on words intended) is that since Dove mostly sells cleansing products and not cosmetics, it has little to lose by burning down the House of Beauty. If it could really get people to stop worrying about how they look, it would mostly hurt the sales of its rivals who focus more on cosmetics. But I think this campaign will not change the world so drastically. In five years, they’ll be touting glamour or something.

  6. aj

    An interesting post — I agree that Dove is declaring a kind of “third option” in the beauty wars, but beyond that, to me it was a crucial step that had to be taken to reinvigorate the brand. For years, all we knew about Dove was that it was 1/4 moisturizing cream. That’s all well and good, but everyone and her sister has cabinets chock full of creams and potions now. How to stand out in a crowded marketplace? One – great, consistent industrial design in their packaging that recalls the shape of the Dove soap bar, and two, they decided to take a stand (arguably a kind of safe stance, but whatever) and tell people about it. Now their brand has a very Web 2.0, direct, straight-talking but friendly personality to it.

    This post and the responses to it has also got me thinking — in the days before mass media and great colour printing, how were ideals of beauty communicated?

    I mean, a hundred and fifty years ago, unless you were posted to the fringes of Empire or lived in the New World, you’d likely never be exposed to “different” kinds of beauty. As a friend of pure-Irish extraction remarked on her first recent trip to the mother country, “It was so strange, everyone looked like a distant member of my family.” Within a relatively homogenous local group, how do you decide who is “more” or “less” beautiful?

    I’ve read some years ago that scientists studied attractiveness and boiled it down to a series of ratios — the size, shape and relative distance between elements on the face. For those of us not graced with it, we have artful cosmetics and surgery to bring us closer to that Platonic ideal.

    Expressed as different variations on that set of ratios, one can argue that Cate Blanchett, Aishwariya Rai, Angelina Jolie and Penelope Cruz have more in common with each other — a possibly, very quantifiable “attractiveness factor” — than non-famous people who may still be attractive but are considered more “average” — no?

  7. jens

    i’d like to think of dove as an advertiser who wants to make responsible use of his communication power in a culture obsessed with beauty, youth and the surgery that comes with it.

    to me this campaign is just a counter statement in a cultural discourse – not the explanation of the world.

    a little like toscani’s campaign for benetton in the 90s. – not quite as good though.

  8. jens

    whereas the visual language of the photography is beautifully reduced to an almost scientific statement the overall tone of the campaign departs from that clarity. it almost gets the tone of a ‘movement’ – and by bringing in the adjective ‘real’ it becomes both a calculated provocation and a mission statement.

    the whole thing is far too easy to decipher – and i think that is what ultimately bothers me about this campaign. – dove is playing the underdog with a humanitarian message. but everything is carefully balanced out so that everybody can get the message.

    not bad for a mass-marketer…
    but in the end it is just a fake – a credibility stunt that may not hold.

    (some reactions to the ‘controversial’ new campaign – published by dove

  9. Peter

    Very interesting post, Grant.

    Like you, I have always been fascinated by Elizabethan England. I too have wondered about why there was a literary flowering at this time and just afterwards. Because that society (and western society generally, until the late 18th century) favoured speech over text, I have wondered if the cause of the flowering was something that led people to speak to each other more often, or differently, or more intensely, than they had before. One such causal factor may have been the religious laws of Elizabeth’s reign, in which both traditional Roman Catholics and new-fangled Puritans faced state-sponsored repression. I wondered if that led people to engage in more-intense private conversation and communications with people they could trust, with no desire or expectation that their words would be copied or published, or that their words would be properly understood by everyone who heard them. Thus, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which are very private utterances, expressing intense love, mostly to another man, were intended for speaking aloud, and not apparently written for publication. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays appear to contain coded messages to England’s Catholics, messages which non-Catholics in the audience may not have realized were there.

    If talk could get you arrested (and worse — tortured, made impoverished and killed), then one may expend more than normal effort in deciding what, when, how and to whom to speak. Such efforts may lead speakers, naturally enough, to focus on clever word-play (as in Shakespeare’s Sonnets), intense imagery (as in Marlowe’s plays, or in Southwell’s or Donne’s poetry), and riveting rhetoric (Donne’s sermons, Campion’s and Garnet’s pamphlets).

  10. Charles Edward Frith

    The idea that Dove is campaigning for real beauty lacks veracity. They ask on their website: ‘How did our idea of beauty become so distorted?’ Well let me remind them. Their sister skincare brand Ponds has skin whitening variants which are tantamount to skin bleach. Dove is just product portfolio management plain and simple.

    Some might argue that Dove are not complicit in this business, but I’d point out that it doesn’t take a semiotician to deconstruct the Dove print/TV/Billboard ads which in S.E. Asia never use dark skinned South East Asian models, even though this is the predominant skin colour in the region. Instead Dove uses models that are ethnic Chinese (and thus whiter skinned) role models. Make no mistake that this contributes to the lower self esteem that the more rural and agrarian groups feel from this pernicious form of advertising. Some of us that have jumped through hoops to do responsible communications know all to well how effective this subtle racism really is.

    Focus groups in these countries tell an even harder story. The ruling Chinese groups in places like Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia look down on darker skinned people to the extent that office workers will choose who they lunch with based on a hierarchical grading of whiteness of skin. That my friends is the uncomfortable truth of selling skin whitening cream or using only whiter Asian skinned models.

    I’m aware that in Elizabethan times a tan was considered an indicator of toil in the fields and thus exposure to the sun and labour, and that this switched round when jet travel became cheap so that a tan was a badge of wealth to display tropical winter vacation status, but surely someone at Unilever could do the right thing and put a disclaimer on their skin bleaches that ‘Unilever respects skin of all colours’? I know I tried to slip it in without success.

    It’s still not right but it’s a start for all those girls from Isaan that struggle to make their skin white to fit into a cosmopolitan environment. It’s notable that in so many S.E. Asian ad agency environments that produce homogeneous advertising, the local staff are invariably a homogeneous Chinese White.

    Go figure!

  11. Sean Moffitt

    Some good debate on this one…unfortunately the blogosphere can get tied up in the details and the process than the larger perspective.

    In a world where ads and communications are routinely passed over (3,000 ads a day, 90,000 ads a month on average and unpromptedly people will be able to only spit back 1.8 from the last month), Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty is such a clear breakthrough winner and I believe, unlike Jens, could be talked about 5 years from now as part of a wave of communication that elevated authenticity, tapped emotional, heartfelt value, perhaps even restoring our faith in ads to connect with people.

    It’s not only a winner but a true wake-up call to the marketing, advertising and pop culture community, on how we deliver ideas and ads with meaning.

    Knowing some of the folks that delivered the genesis of this campaign in Canada, whether you believe their motives were insipid, cosmetic bashing and profit seeking or not (I believe their hearts were actually in the right place), they triggered an emotion in the average looking woman who lives in Windsor, Newark, Calgary, Queens or San Antonio “my value and attractiveness to the world counts whether I’m drop dead physically attractive or not.”

    If they believed the opposite, where would the successes of physically unassuming women like Madeline Albright, Mother Theresa, Kathy Bates (and I’m sure many others) be?

    Grant, you’re likely right, there are some real advantages culture allows us for fitting their role of beauty (and interesting how it shifts over as little as a century), but I believe the Dove campaign taps into a even more important self-view.

    As we all know, what we perceive is what we believe – by questioning, changing and getting people to rally against a long-held viewpoint, this campaign gets my marks for the best one in the last few years anyway and doing enormous heavy lifting for a simple ad campaign in an era of consumer trust, attention and time shortfalls.

    If its doing the wrong job of telling people that they can achieve things and be self-confident without fitting the majority’s viewpoint on beauty, then maybe we as marketers should be asking for more ads that aren’t right.

  12. dashbp

    I am writing a PR case study for one of my classes on the dove campaign, and from what I can tell they don’t seem to be marketing anything other than an extremely new definition of beauty to change stereotypical views of beauty. I can see how they will get great response from this campaign which would persuade women to buy their products but i feel as though they are sincere with this mission for challenging our cultural beliefs and standards. Google their website and read The Dove Report: Challenging Beauty. They spent quite a bit of money on the research for this campaign. Since they are a company after a profit, I feel as though they have taken the subtle, almost invisible route of persuading customers. Granted they aren’t after just money this time but rather money and a method of enpowering women to feel beautiful. Even if money is their sole desire, I still believe that this campaign has the potential to change the falsified images of beauty we see in the media to more real and natural images of beauty. The only downside is, that they will need more support, messages, time, effort, and expenses which i doubt they are willing to give past a certain point. I just hope that the women and men that are truly supporters of this campaign realize the potential for something greater than a profit and targeted women feeling more beautiful. Screw the profit if you want power change the world’s perception of beauty and you will have unleashed the secret to PR, Marketing, but most of all, Defeating the Media. If you can influence more of what people think than the media holy crap!

  13. Kerry

    Re: the three types of beauty: Marcel Proust wrote the line (translated by Montcrieff and Enright as) “We leave the pretty girls to the men with no imagination.” I think this was in Time Regained from In Search of Lost Time. Proust was quite strong on the idea of a woman’s beauty (as opposed to prettiness – which I think of as that which all men will generally agree on) as being almost internal to an individual man. Witness the narrator comparing his infatuation with Albertine with his friend’s infatuation with an actress and how neither could understand what the other saw in their respective women.

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