Dove asks women a question that men should be asking, too.
In a new, brilliantly illuminating online video from Dove , women are asked to sit behind a curtain and describe themselves to an experienced police sketch artist, answering his questions until he has created a portrait of them, sight-unseen. But they aren’t allowed to see his work right away, because they are escorted out, and a stranger who they shared a waiting room with is escorted in. The strangers then goes through the same exercise, describing the features of the women they just met, and a second set of sketches is completed.
Then the heart-aching part happens. The women are invited back in to view both sketches, side-by-side, and in turn, each realizes that the self-portraits they described are less attractive and flattering than those articulated by complete strangers. Every single woman included each flaw on her face. Moles. Wrinkles. Thin lips. Bags under the eyes. Meanwhile, every stranger bypassed those imperfections and yet, the portraits they helped generate were, by and large, at least as accurate as those that came from self-perception.
This is where advertising and social science meet in a way that couldn’t have happened half-a-generation ago, when 30-second commercials and single-image print ads had to tell the whole story, all while selling a specific product. Dove took more than six minutes to let this process unfold the right way, with less than a tenth of it dedicated to overt branding. Still, there was no question which brand was responsible, and who they were speaking to.
As a professional ad man, I’m in awe of what Ogilvy Toronto and Dove did together, advancing their own, standout “Campaign for Real Beauty” that has been making waves and reshaping the way women think of their bodies for more than a half a decade. But as a man (minus the “ad” prefix), it left me sad that this phenomenon would be so evident in modern women, but also curious. What would’ve happened if men had been included in this experiment?
Would we be as critical of ourselves, or would we be a bunch of Homer Simpsons posing in front of our mental mirrors, bouncing our imagined pecs to the Can Can? Would we focus on our weakest traits, or emphasize our best features? Is a man more or less likely to give the forensic artist what he needs to draw an accurate portrait, and if so… why?
My gut instinct was that most men wouldn’t be as hard on themselves, but I’ll admit, I had no evidence for why. So I looked for a little. Turns out a study in 2011 found that with the exception of objectively, inarguably attractive males (think the Brad, Denzel, Tom Brady set), men do tend to overrate their own attractiveness . Most of the theories on why this would be center around evolutionary forces where male confidence is read as attractive, thus becoming a self-fulfilling process that eventually leads to mating. In essence, it isn’t about how colorful the tail feathers are. It’s about how confidently the peacock fans them.
However, as I wrote back around Super Bowl time , I feel we also have to consider the additive effects of modern men having so many examples of average joes and less-than-handsome gents being adored by beautiful women on TV and movie screens as well. If Bill Murray can swagger into a scene, with his receding hairline and pockmarked cheeks in full evidence, and win the heart of a sexy MP or a soon-to-be-possessed cellist, why should the rest of us guys focus on something as trivial as a mono-brow or an extra chin?
So it would appear that there are both evolutionary and cultural reasons to think most men wouldn’t “paint” a less-flattering portrait of themselves with words. But I can admit, from personal experience, to having played both the roll of harsh self-critic and blithe-self-promoter at various times in my life.
Ask me to describe my face right now and I’ll tell you about the nose that was already a shade too big before I broke it chasing my son around the monkey bars at a park. That chicken-pock scar under might right eye would likely get a mention, as would the mole that I keep trying to sell as “DeNiro-esque.” I’d certainly point out that my upper lip should be on the back of a milk carton considering it’s been missing since childhood. Now, according to the study I quoted earlier, that either means I’m inarguably handsome and underplaying my charms (waiting for validation on this… still waiting) … or that even with all aforementioned flaws, I’m still, somehow, overrating my looks. Heaven help me, and my wife, if that’s the case.
Then again, I also know that I’ve been guilty of the Homer Simpson mirror moment as well. Five years ago, I weighed 35 pounds more than I do now, yet never thought of myself as “overweight.” I was. I look back on pictures of myself and it’s clear now in a way that it never was then. Does that mean I was more confident (to the point of overconfidence) during those days of wine and donuts? Maybe. Or maybe my own experience, plus the information from the 2011 study, suggest another idea.
What if men, regardless of their objective “attractiveness,” are predisposed to think of themselves as average, or just a little bit above? It would explain why the hunks in the study might underrate their hunkiness. Certainly, as a gender, we haven’t been socialized to attach our self-image or worth to our looks the way women have. And we see a similar pattern emerge when we talk about men’s self-evaluation of their intellect as well. Adrian Furnham of University College London found a gender disparity while asking subjects to estimate their own IQs. Women respondents estimated their IQs were, on average, five points lower than their actual scores, while men were the opposite, overestimating their brain power by the same five points.
Again, it seems built into men to overestimate ourselves.
Is this conclusive proof that if Dove for Men had recreated this revealing piece of psycho-tising, they would’ve gotten different results? Of course not. But it does add one more piece of the puzzle suggesting that just as women are still on a journey to love and appreciate themselves as they are, men might be on the same path, heading the other way on quest to simply recognize their authentic selves. If so, we can only hope to meet somewhere in the middle, where our perceptions of ourselves would finally match what everyone else can see the moment they meet us.