One need not be a scholar to know when an ad campaign has not succeeded. But when it comes to evaluating the histories that underlie problematic messaging, a professor who studies race and gender can offer invaluable insight.

Noliwe Rooks, an associate professor in Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender, Sexuality Studies at Cornell University, delivered a talk Monday evening in Kresge Auditorium about the intersections of beauty, race and popular culture in examining Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and its use of black women’s bodies as a marketing tool. Rooks’ lecture, sponsored by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, also touched on the value of beauty in society and its impact in politics and policy making.

Rooks focused on specific images from the Real Beauty campaign, an ad campaign launched in 2004 with the intention of reflecting what women truly wanted to see in advertising. One image in particular showed a black woman, a Latina woman and a white woman lined up in that order under a “before and after” banner to demonstrate a transformation from rough to smooth skin after using the product. But as Rooks pointed out, the image also suggested that a transformation from dark to light skin was desirable. Although Dove claimed that race was not supposed to be a part of the visual narrative, the company eventually cancelled the advertisement.

“The demise of the overall campaign was especially telling in regards to its disconnecting the meaning of beauty from race and history,” Rooks said. “It’s puzzling they did not catch something so simple as an advertisement where large-boned black woman became white and thin after using the product.”

Rooks spoke to the negative effects the campaign had on presenting black bodies.

“The campaign never gave any thought to broadening the message to include different races, nor did it pay attention to how we read and understand bodies that are raced,” she said. “They used black women’s bodies only to denote the ability to overcome a variety of imperfections…. By the end of the campaign, black skin became another imperfection to overcome or be washed away.”

In the past recent years, Dove has moved away from ads explicitly about body image to those that generally empower women. Rooks began her lecture by showing the Real Beauty Sketches, a more recent Dove ad. In the video, a group of women describe both themselves and another woman in the group to a sketch artist. The women then spend time comparing the two sketches to see the differences between their perceptions of themselves and a stranger’s perception of their beauty.

Rooks attributed the video’s success to both the warm, feel-good emotions it elicited and its wide dissemination. One month after release, it had garnered more than 114 million views, making it the most viral ad of all time. It was uploaded in 25 languages and has been viewed in 110 different countries.

 “[The video] was a cultural phenomenon that spoke to women, and was profitable at the same time,” she said. “It tells us that beauty is internal and personal and race-neutral and individual and should not have power in women’s lives. Many of us, fatigued with hearing and seeing the opposite, desperately wanted to believe that all of this is true.”

Rooks went on to speak more generally about the role of beauty and race in society. According to Rooks, less conventionally attractive individuals are less likely to be viewed as smart, interesting, likeable, successful and well-adjusted. She went on to say that dark-skinned black women are considered 50 per cent less attractive than those that are lighter-skinned. Rooks then discussed the implications of the internalizing of these perceptions by young people.

Diamond Walker ’17, who attended the talk, found the argument that beauty is more than just aesthetics interesting. 

“We understand how beauty works in a social setting, I’ve never thought about it an academic setting,” said Walker.