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By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

April 28, 2021 | 6 min read

Nicknamed ‘generation selfie’, young people are more likely to suffer low self-esteem as a result of social media. A veteran social campaigner, Dove is on a mission to use its power and influence to combat the harmful impact selfie culture has on young girls before the problem becomes endemic. The team behind ‘Reverse Selfie’ talk The Drum through their plan of action.

By the age of 13, 80% of girls distort the way they look online. Take a moment to let that sink in.

While the dangers of social media have been widely documented, concerns over the harm of retouching apps and filters are only just starting to show. And more screen time during the pandemic has only made things worse.

Widely available, the apps encourage children to stare intently at their own reflection. But instead of admiring their perfect imperfections, they are given tools to ‘fix’ them, playing around with the dimensions of their face until they look like a superimposed Bratz doll.

Dove and its long-term ad agency Ogilvy have been on the frontline of the fight against unrealistic beauty standards since 2004 when they started work on the Dove Self Esteem Project.

In 2006, it introduced ‘Evolution’ – a campaign that filmed the transformation of a model into the pristine billboard ad that makes the final cut. A ‘before and after', it is still used in schools today to show the role that photo editing plays in distorting the truth. “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted,” mused the poignant film. And so, 15 years later, Dove has returned to the idea – but given it a modern look.

“Reverse Selfie is an evolution of an existing strategy we started 15 years ago,” explains Jo Bacon, global lead at WPP. “We want to tackle modern societal issues around detoxifying beauty – recognizing that it’s not just the beauty industry setting the high beauty standards, but children themselves.”

“The problem that Evolution talked about has been magnified. It’s a lot more invasive and a lot more prevalent,” argues Daniel Fisher, global executive creative director at Ogilvy. “We asked ourselves, can we do ‘Evolution’ for a social era, not that the threat has evolved and made it worse.”

As the name suggests, Evolution traced a transformation from beginning to end. While intending to point out a similar problem, the team felt it would be more impactful if they reversed the process.

Featuring what appears to be a woman locked into the artificial world of social media, we are first introduced to her in the form of a highly-edited photograph and her true identity is mostly hidden until the shock at the end – that she is not what the selfie implied, but a young 13-year-old girl.

“We wanted to create impact by firstly showing the outcome,” explains Juliana Paracencio, global creative director at Ogilvy UK. “This ‘perfect selfie’ is how young girls want to look. She details how from beginning to end, every single part of the process was about authenticity and says the image shown was retouched by themselves.”

Finding the right girl was also crucial in depicting this authentic, cautionary tale. “The team spent a long time talking to girls about their own experiences of how they used these apps and how they felt about themselves,” recalls Bacon. “Grace was cast specifically because she’d had very real experiences about losing confidence. It was a very emotional performance from her which was close to the experience she went through.”

While ’Reverse Selfie’ is designed to shock, the team say they also wanted to deliver hope – a combination which they admit wasn’t easy. “We wanted the end frame to hint that there is a chance to do something about this. That there’s a different path,” Fisher says.

This is why the end frame ends with a message of support, directing the viewer to have the ‘selfie talk’. “It’s really important for Dove to actually give people the support and the help they need,” Bacon insists, pointing out that it is part of a much wider strategy to offer a toolkit that will empower teachers, parents and young people to go online to understand how to fight back on social pressures. Guides are free to download.

‘Reverse Selfie’ is part of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which Dove started in 2004. Since then it has supported 70 million young people, with an end goal to educate 250 million people by 2030.

In 2018, it launched #HourWithHer after research found when girls don’t feel good about the way they look, they are more likely to opt-out of important activities. Encouraging girls to open up to each other, it said spending just an #HourWithHer can help boost a girl’s self-esteem for a lifetime.

It followed #HourWithHer with ‘No Digital Distortion’ – a mark that tells you the person featured in Dove’s images are just as you’d see them in real life, with no alterations to their body’s shape or size. More recently, it named body-positive musician Lizzo as its brand ambassador for the project.

“From now on, you’ll see a more constant activist stream to try and empower women and girls,” promises Bacon. “There’s a whole stream of more frequent communication that’s planned, saying it’s about moving forward by looking at where there are those issues that are created by the ad industry, by beauty standards, and by wider society.

“We’ve always been an activist, but this will massively accelerate moving forwards. This is about creating movements and empowering girls and women to take a stand and have their own voice against it, as opposed to us just coming in and shining a light on,” she contends.

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