It seems there is a market for single women in China—an actual “marriage market” in Shanghai where parents post profiles of their daughters (and sons), by using cards that list their physical attributes and other skills and credentials.
The least desirable, it appears, are the so-called sheng-nu, leftover women, or women over 25 who are not married. They are considered old maids, and disrespectful to their parents, if they are not married at a young age—as if they failed to accomplish a fundamental life step.
It’s infuriating and heartbreaking all at once, and a new ad that’s quickly gone viral (with over 1.5 million views in six days), is calling it out.
The ad, in the classic brand of multinational consumer goods feel-good messaging that Dove has turned into a genre of its own, shows women reporting the social pressure that comes with being unmarried after a certain age. “How old are you? Why are you not married?” they report being asked.
Cut to family scenes where these young women sit next to their parents, who are saying things like “She’s just average looking, not too pretty, that’s why she’s leftover,” or “If she doesn’t find the one it will be a heart disease for me.”
The women feel sorry and confess guilt while crying on camera, but then are encouraged to take pride in who they are: next thing you know, the Shanghai street market is full of pictures of them rejecting marriage pressure with life affirming quotes such as “I want to take the time to find the right person.”
“Don’t let pressure dictate your future,” closes the ad, encouraging readers to share the commercial (dedicated hashtag and all).
And all this empowerment is brought to you by SK-II, a Procter & Gamble-owned brand whose Google search tagline reads: “Anti-aging skin care & skin brightening.” That is, a brand that makes money by selling products to women with the promise that they’ll look younger, and “whiter” (one of their products with best reviews is called “Whitening Source”).
There is a word for advertising like this, and that word is “hypocrisy.”
No matter the amount of moving music and public displays of support, there is simply no way a beauty brand should be able to both profit from a growing huge market ($191.7 billion projected globally for anti-aging alone) that feeds off the idea that you look too dark-skinned and too old, and also play fairy godmother of female empowerment.
It’s true of Dove’s disingenuous “real beauty” messaging as it is of SK-II’s #ChangeDestiny hashtag. What Unilever and P&G and all other seemingly well-meaning beauty industry marketers make money off of is not women valuing their brains—it is the ludicrous notion that a serum can erase time from your face.
So enjoy the advertisement, sure, but don’t call this empowering. It’s an advertiser’s job to sell products. And of late, they have been able to do so by riding a new wave of actual female empowerment that calls out a society that imposes on them the unrealistic, biased beauty standards the advertisers helped create.
And after all, this ad is about aging being undesirable, just as much as Dove’s are about beauty being desirable. Do not be fooled by the fact the voiceover says something else.