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'Selfie' short film the talk of Sundance, but is it more ad than art?

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Since its premiere on Monday, the eight-minute short film “Selfie” has become one of the most talked-about stories of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Dealing with the appearance-driven insecurities of teenage girls and their mothers, “Selfie” is commendable for the honesty and vulnerability with which its subjects address a very delicate issue. It also ends with a heartwarming message, as the selfies taken by the girls and their mothers are displayed in an art gallery, with attendees then posting sticky notes to each of them, complimenting the girls and women on what they like best about the portraits.

Then a title card pops up with the logo for Dove beauty products, along with the words “Redefine Beauty.” There’s also a call to action to “Join the conversation” by using the hashtag #beautyis.

This begs the question: Is “Selfie” art or advertising? And if you believe it’s the latter, does this mean that Dove is exploiting the very insecurities their now 10-year-old Campaign for Real Beauty has been applauded for trying to stamp out?

Like so many shrewd and postmodern marketing campaigns, there’s no objective right answer. On the one hand, beauty-based insecurities have been a bane on the female psyche since well before Dove was invented. A recent Huffington Post article about Dove’s Real Beauty campaign cited a PsychCentral story claiming that “80 percent of women in the U.S. are dissatisfied with their appearance.” A marketing campaign that candidly addresses an issue this widespread should be given credit as a conversation-starter.

"There are so few commercials that in any way are different, that challenge the stereotypical images," Jean Kilbourne, an expert on how women are portrayed in advertising, told HuffPost.

The team behind the Campaign for Real Beauty also deserves credit for the artfulness of their campaign. “Selfie” was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Cynthia Wade and their other videos, including “Evolution” and last year’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” were powerful and affecting explorations on the issue of self-perception.

"A product-based affair was never going to [affect change]," Janet Kestin, the former creative director of the agency behind "Evolution," told HuffPost. "The goal is to alleviate pressure on the next generation."

Yet that’s not the entire goal. Sociologists aren’t the ones behind these films; they’re very clearly branded by Dove, a company owned by Unilever. An Anglo-Dutch multinational conglomerate, Unilever’s holdings also include Lipton, Vaseline, and Axe, whose advertisements have been frequently and accurately accused of sexism. Dove may be building its brand on a uniquely progressive marketing campaign, but Axe sells its products the old-fashioned way: Through blunt attempts at equating its body sprays and deodorants as the secret to scoring with the types of impossibly beautiful women whose thin yet busty figures are fueling the insecurities that necessitate corrective ad campaigns like Dove's.

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, put it well in her comments to the Huffington Post:

“If the stated goal of the Dove Real Beauty Campaign is for girls and women to understand that their power and their beauty does not come from a tube or an airbrush or a cream, but rather from their own personalities and power, then the company would not sell certain products that they sell, and their parent company would not run some of the most misogynistic ad campaigns in the past ten years.”

Others take issue with the message tacitly embedded in the Dove ads. In a response to the “Real Beauty Sketches” video, New York Magazine’s Ann Friedman wrote:

“These ads still uphold the notion that, when it comes to evaluating ourselves and other women, beauty is paramount. The goal shouldn’t be to get women to focus on how we are all gorgeous in our own way. It should be to get women to do for ourselves what we wish the broader culture would do: judge each other based on intelligence and wit and ethical sensibility, not just our faces and bodies.”

This speaks to the problems created when a discussion this important is waged on the battlefield of commerce. Look at the quiet cynicism in the following quote, attributed to Jennifer Bremner, brand director of skin cleansing at Unilever:

"We believe that conversation leads to brand love, and brand love leads to brand loyalty. That's obviously a positive for us not just in the power of the brand, but also ultimately in sales."

While it’s no doubt healthy for us to engage in a cultural dialogue around this topic, it’s crucial to remember that discussions like those created by the film “Selfie” ultimately take place in service of Dove’s bottom line.

"The conversation is as relevant and fresh today as it was 10 years ago," Sharon MacLeod, vice president of Unilever North America Personal Care, told the Huffington Post. "I believe we'll be doing [this campaign] 10 years from now."

There’s little doubt about that, for more reasons than one.

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