July 14, 2014

Advertising Co-opts Social Science

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you seen the videos circulating that purport to be stories informed by social science? They are passed on to “enlighten” us about social issues and solutions.

I have a few examples to share with you.

The first is the Dove Evolution video about manipulating images for advertising. That one has been around awhile and does a good job of showing us how images change from the original photographs to what is actually published. (Jean Kilbourne does this well in her video, Still Killing Us Softly.)


Dove Real Beauty Sketches shows us an experiment in which people are asked to compare two images of themselves. One image came from their own description to a forensic artist, who was seated where he couldn’t see them. The second image was from another person’s description. The people describing the others were also participants, thus they had described themselves to the artist and then described someone else. The outcome shows that people are much more critical of their own features, often describing flaws that others most likely do not notice.


Both of these videos have been widely shared. And while they may raise consciousness and discussion opportunities about the many difficult issues revolving around body image, they are still sponsored by a company intending to market their products. They are used to sell more Dove products and to frame their organization as women-friendly and not at all reinforcing the status quo. They are practicing impression management to instill brand loyalty in women and men who are concerned about these issues.

I came across Beldent Almost Identical on Facebook, which purported to be an example of scientific research that could help us improve others’ opinions of us. In this video, they recruited identical twins to sit in a gallery, one sitting doing nothing, the other doing the same but chewing gum. People approach, put on headphones and answer questions about their opinion of which twin makes a more positive impression.


Surprise, surprise, the results show that the twin chewing gum is perceived as approachable, friendlier, and having other good qualities. The gum chewing provides a halo effect of positive vibes! Beldent, the company that brings us this video, is a maker of chewing gum. No surprise there.

Note that these last two videos cast themselves as social science experiments. However, we do not know who the respondents were, where they came from, how they were recruited, how many there were, the length of time this study took, and other pertinent details so that we could ascertain the quality of this “research.”

Labels Against Women, reposted from the site Upworthy.com tells us about an ad that "calls out five ridiculous double standards" against women. The video is subtle but visually interesting. Women and men are shown doing the same activities paired with the descriptive words used for each gender. The words for men are positive or benign while the words for women are derogatory.


Although the title indicates that it’s ad, that’s not entirely clear until the very end. It is sponsored by Pantene, so it is a hair product ad. The uplifting image at the end is an “empowered” woman, told to not let labels hold her back, to be “strong and shine” while shaking her lustrous hair as she walks down the street.

It is fascinating to see how consumption and marketing are so intricately intertwined with culture, gender and so many other structures in society. Businesses co-opts societal arrangements in their quest for profit.

Of course, ads have always made claims that are not verified by science.  But by linking the ad to what looks like an actual “scientific” study or to the findings from legitimate science, these ads go a step further. They should trouble those who agree that science is a good tool for getting accurate information about this plane of existence. (Scientific literacy is another issue for another blog.)

Advertising, when paired or tied to social science, can be a powerful sales tool. Ads do not necessarily in share accurate information, though. These videos can be used in the classroom as examples of non-research or as a tool to give a visual example of the dynamics of gender in our society. Viewed in a social media context, though, people may encounter them and believe what they say. Without the mediating effect of discussion, reflection, and further reading, all of which are the hallmarks of higher education, people may not be able to tell what is accurate, high quality information and what is misleading.

What other images or advertising have you seen that claims some measure of social science legitimacy?


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