Dreams for Sale: Ideal Beauty in the Eyes of the Advertiser




How to Cite

Johnson-Hunt, N. (2020). Dreams for Sale: Ideal Beauty in the Eyes of the Advertiser. M/C Journal, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1646
Vol. 23 No. 1 (2020): dream
Published 2020-03-18


‘Dream’ has been researched across numerous fields in its multiplicity within both a physical and emotional capacity. For Pagel et al., there is no fixed definition of what ‘dream’ is or are. However, in an advertising context, ’dream’ is the idealised version of our desires, re-visualised in real life (Coombes and Batchelor 103). It could be said that for countless consumers, advertising imagery has elicited dreams of living the perfect life and procuring material pleasures (Manca et al.; Hood). Goodis asserts, “advertising doesn’t always mirror how people are acting but how they are dreaming, in a sense what we are doing is wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you” (qtd. in Back and Quaade 65). One component of this notion of ‘dream’ in advertising is captured by wishful images of the face and body in their ‘perfect form’ presented in a field of other beauty ideals. For our purposes, ‘dream’ is a “philosophical concept” (Pagel et al. 14) by which dreams are a series of aspirations and desires that consumers internalise, while at the same time, find difficult to achieve. ‘Dream’, then, will be used to critically explore how the beauty and advertising industries collectively employ ethnic ambiguity in addition to other tactics and strategies to sell us dream-like visions of idealised beauty. 

Forever Dreaming: The Introduction of Ethnic Ambiguity

We can link dreams to beauty as both areas of analysis contain many cultural interpretations and can be deconstructed to reveal different meanings (Sontag). In many ways, beauty is another dream and Sontag notes that the concept of beauty is often linked to certain physical traits that an individual possesses. These physical traits are capitalised upon by product marketing by which Hood claims, aims to enhance one, or even more, of them. For example, lipstick is not marketed as simply as a mixture of wax and pigment but rather a way to “obtain beauty, find romance or gain confidence” (7). As a result, global beauty brands can find long term marketing success through meaningful product marketing. This long-term marketing success relies on influencing human behaviour and perceptions. As a result of meaningful marketing, consumers may find themselves driven to purchase implicit qualities in products advertised to reflect their dreams (Hood).

Following the 1980s, this version of meaningful marketing has become a driving purpose for advertising agencies around the globe (Steel). Advertising agencies rely on deeper human insights, identifying latent desires to create a brief that must ultimately sell a dream (Steel). The ideal strategy needs to define something that will build brand loyalty and encourage consumers to have a symbiotic relationship connecting their dreams with the product being sold. As Hood argues, “advertising consists of selling not just things but also dreams”. While this concept is one that “some see as inherently damning”, it is also inherently necessary (7). We understand that people are emotional beings, investing in the artefacts they build, obtain or use with significance “beyond merely utilitarian” (7). For these reasons, beauty advertisers act as the purveyors of dreams in the form of physical perfection as an articulation of consumer’s own aspirations of beauty.

These aspirations of dream beauty are a direct representation of our thoughts and feelings. As such, it should be noted that we as consumers are often encouraged to draw inspiration from imagery that is often times seen as ethnically ambiguous. “Ethnic ambiguity” is the absence of any one prominent ethnic or racial feature that is easily discernible to one specific group (Garcia 234; Harrison et al.). An example of this ethnic ambiguity can be seen in marketing campaigns by high end makeup artist and her eponymous range of cosmetics, Charlotte Tilbury. Most notably, in a 2015 launch for her “Makeup Wardrobe”, Tilbury’s makeup palettes boasted 10 aspirational ‘looks’ and personas that could be achieved simply through purchase. The images of women featured on a figurative ‘wheel of fortune’ digital display used to market products online. This digital ‘wheel of fortune’ comprised of ethnically ambiguous models against descriptive persona’s such as “The Dolce Vita” and “The Glamour Muse”. These kinds of digital marketing tools required consumers to make a decision based on what their dream ‘look’ is through an ethnically ambiguous lens and from here are guided to purchase their desired aesthetic. Like Charlotte Tilbury, the beauty industry has seen a growing body of cosmetic brands that employ ethnic ambiguity to sell dreams of homogenised beauty. We will see the ways in which modern day beauty brands, such as Kylie Jenner Cosmetics and Fenty Beauty have come to adopt ethnic ambiguity or embrace entire ethnic and racial groups in order to expand their consumer influence.

Aspirational Ambiguity: Dreams of Disempowerment

Since the early 2000s, beauty advertising has seen a prominent rise in the use of ethnically ambiguous models. Some see this as an effort to answer the global desire for diversity and inclusion. However, the notion that beauty standards transcend racial boundaries and is inclusive, is simply another form of appropriating and fetishising ethnicity (R. Sengupta). In many ways, these manufactured dream-like versions of beauty have evolved to reach wider markets, in the hope that consumers will be emboldened to both embrace their racial heritage, and at the same time conform to homogenised standards of beauty (Frith et al.; Harrison et al.).

In this bid to diversify and extend consumer reach, there are three prominent reasons why ethnically ambiguous models are more likely to be featured over models whose African, Indigenous, and/or Asian heritage is more prominent. Firstly, ethnically ambiguous models do not seem to conform to a particular notion of what is considered beautiful. For many decades, popular culture has been saturated with images of thin, of young, of narrow noses and hips, of blonde, blue eyes, and Caucasian hair textures (Harrison et al.; Hunter; Saraswati). These Westernised beauty ideals have been historically shaped through years of colonial influence, grounded in an imbalance of power and imposed to create a culture of dominance and oppression (Saraswati). Secondly, ethnic models are featured to convey “the sense of the ‘exotic’, and their ‘otherness’ acts to normalise and entrench the dominant ideal of white beauty” (qtd. in Redmond 175). ‘Otherness’ can be defined as the opposite of the majority, in Westernised society this ‘other’ can mean “people who are other than white, male, able bodied, heterosexual” (qtd. in Graycar 74). This ‘otherness’ showcased by ethnically ambiguous models draws viewers in. Physical features that were possessed by one specific ethnic group such as African, Asian, Latinx or Indigenous peoples have now become blended and are no longer confined to one race. Additionally, ethnically ambiguous models enable white consumers to dream about an exotic local or lifestyle, while at the same time providing ethnic audiences a way to see themselves.

Finally, it is undeniable that ethnically ambiguous and mixed-race models have become desirable due to a historical preference for light skin (Saraswati). The visual references of light-skinned beauty epitomise a colonial dream and this standardisation has been transferred to indigenous peoples, or ethnic minorities in Western countries. According to Harrison et al, “marketers use mixed-race representations as cultural currency by mythologising mixed-race bodies as the new beauty standard” to represent a racial bridge, “tailored to ameliorate perceived racial divides” (503). Therefore, ethnically ambiguous models have an assumed advantage over their racially dominant counterparts, because they appear to straddle various racial boundaries. They are constructed to embody whomever, from wherever and whenever, fetishising their roleplay for the industry, when it pleases. This further exoticises multi-racial beauty models and renders them a commodified fantasy for many consumers alike. 

The continued commodification of ethnic ambiguity is problematic as it exploits models with distinctly mixed-race heritage to continue to sell images of white-washed beauty (Solomon et al.). An argument could be made that scarcity contributes to mixed-race models’ value, and therefore the total number of advertising opportunities that are offered to mixed-race models remains limited. To date, numerous studies highlight a limited use of racially diverse models within the beauty industry and does not reflect the growing global body of diverse consumers with purchasing power (Wasylkiw et al.; Redmond; Johnson; Jung and Lee; Frith et al.). In fact, prior to globalisation, Yan and Bissell claim that “each culture had a unique standard of attractiveness, derived from traditional views about beauty as well as the physical features of the people” (197) and over time the construction of dream beauty is characterised using Western features combined with exoticised traits of indigenous ethnic groups. Akinro and Mbunyuza-Memani claim that this “trend of normalising white or 'western' feminine looks as the standard of beauty” has pervaded a number of these indigenous cultures, eventually disseminated through the media as the ultimate goal (308). It can also be argued that the “growing inclusion of mixed-race models in ads is driven less by the motivation to portray diversity and driven more by pragmatism,” and in a more practical sense has implications for the “financial future of the advertised brands and the advertising industry as a whole” (Harrison et al. 513). As a result, uses of mixed-race models “are rather understood as palatable responses within dominant white culture to racial and ethnic minority populations growing in … cultural prominence” (513) in a tokenistic bid to sell a dream of unified beauty.

The Dream Girl: Normalisation of Mixed-Race

In 2017, an article in CNN’s Style section highlighted the growing number of mixed-race models in Japan’s fashion and beauty industry as a modern-day phenomenon from Japan’s interlocking history with the United States (Chung and Ogura). These beauty and fashion influencers refer to themselves as hafu, an exclusionary term that historically represented an “othered” minority of mixed-race heritage in Japanese society signalling complex and troubled interactions with majority Japanese (Oshima). The complications once associated with the term ‘hafu’ are now being reclaimed by bi-racial beauty and fashion models and as such, these models are beginning to defy categorisation and, in some ways, national identity because of their chameleon-like qualities. However, while there is an increasing use of mixed-race Japanese models, everyday mixed-race women are regularly excluded within general society; which highlights the incongruent nature of ‘half’ identity. And yet there is an increasing preference and demand from fashion and beauty outlets to feature them in Japanese and Western popular culture (Harrison et al.; Chung and Ogura). Numéro Tokyo’s editorial director Sayumi Gunji, estimated that almost 30-40 per cent of runway models in present day Japan, identify as either bi-racial mixed-race or multi-racial (Chung and Ogura).

Gunji claims:

"Almost all top models in the their 20s are hafu, especially the top models of popular fashion magazines ... . [In] the Japanese media and market, a foreigner's flawless looks aren't as readily accepted -- they feel a little distant. But biracial models, who are taller, have bigger eyes, higher noses [and] Barbie-doll-like looks, are admired because they are dreamy looking but not totally different from the Japanese. That's the key to their popularity," she adds. (Qtd. in Chung and Ogura)

The "dreamy look" that Gunji describes is attributed to a historical preference toward light skin and a kind of willingness and sensuality, that once, only white models could be seen to tout (Frith et al. 58). Frith et al. and O’Barr discuss that beauty in Japanese advertising mirrors “the way women are portrayed in advertising in the West” (qtd. in Frith et al. 58). The emergence of hafu in Japanese beauty advertising sees these two worlds, a mixture of doll-like and sensual beauty, converging to create a dream-like standard for Japanese consumers. The growing presence of Japanese-American models such as Kiko Mizuhara and Jun Hasegawa are both a direct example of the unattainable ‘dreamy look’ that pervades the Japanese beauty industry. Given this ongoing trend of mixed-race models in beauty advertising, a recent article on Refinery29 talks about the significance of how mixed-race models are disassembling their once marginalised status.

A. Sengupta writes:

In contrast to passing, in which mixedness was marginalized and hidden, visibly multiracial models now feature prominently in affirmative sites of social norms. Multiracial looks are normalized, and, by extension, mixed identity is validated. There’s no cohesive social movement behind it, but it’s a quiet sea change that’s come with broadened beauty standards and the slow dismantling of social hierarchies.

Another example of the normalisation in multi-racial identity is Adwoa Aboah, a mixed-race British model and feminist activist who has been featured on the covers of numerous fashion publications and on runways worldwide. In British Vogue’s December 2017 issue, titled “Great BRITAIN”, Adwoa Aboah achieved front cover status, alongside her image featured other politically powerful names, perhaps suggesting that Aboah represents not only the changing face of a historically white publication but as an embodiment of an increasingly diverse consumer landscape. Not only is she seen as both as a voice for those disenfranchised by the industry, by which she is employed, but as a symbol of new dreams. To conclude this section, it seems the evolution of advertising’s inclusion of multi-racial models reveals a progressive step change for the beauty industry. However, relying simply on the faces of ethnically ambiguous talent has become a covert way to fulfil consumer’s desire for diversity without wholly dismantling the destructive hierarchies of white dominance. Over this time however, new beauty creations have entered the market and with it two modern day icons.

Architecting Black Beauty through the American Dream

According to Kiick, the conception of the ‘American Dream’ is born out of a desire to “seek out a more advantageous existence than the current situation” (qtd. in Manca et al. 84). As a result of diligent hard work, Americans were rewarded with an opportunity for a better life (Manca et al.). Kylie Jenner’s entry into the beauty space seemed like a natural move for the then eighteen-year-old; it was a new-age representation of the ‘American Dream’ (Robehmed 2018). In less than five years, Jenner has created Kylie Cosmetics, a beauty empire that has since amassed a global consumer base, helping her earn billionaire status. A more critical investigation into Jenner’s performance however illustrates that her eponymous range of beauty products sells dreams which have been appropriated from black culture (Phelps). The term cultural appropriation refers to the way dominant cultures “adopt and adapt certain aspects of another’s culture and make it their own” (qtd. in Han 9). In Jenner’s case, her connection to ethnic Armenian roots through her sisters Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe Kardashian have significantly influenced her expression of ‘othered’ culture and moreover ethnic beauty ideals such as curvier body shapes and textured hair. Jenner’s beauty advertisements have epitomised what it means to be black in America, cherry picking racialised features of black women (namely their lips, hips/buttocks and afro-braided hairstyles) and rearticulated them through a white lens. The omission of the ‘black experience’ in her promotion of product is problematic for three reasons. Firstly, representing groups or people without invitation enables room for systemic stereotyping (Han). Secondly, this stereotyping can lead to continued marginalisation of minority cultures (Kulchyski). And finally, the over exaggeration of physical attributes, such as Jenner’s lips, hips and buttocks, reinforces her complicity in exoticising and fetishising the “other”. As a result, consumers of social media beauty advertising may pay less attention to cultural appropriation if they are already unaware that the beauty imagery they consume is based on the exploitation of black culture.

Another perspective on Jenner’s use of black culture is in large part due to her cultural appreciation of black beauty. This meaning behind Jenner’s cultural appreciation can be attributed to the inherent value placed on another person’s culture, in the recognition of the positive qualities and the celebration of all aspects of that culture (Han). This is evidenced by her recent addition of cosmetic products for darker complexions (Brown). However, Jenner’s supposed fascination with black culture may be in large part due to the environment in which she was nurtured (Phelps). As Phelps reveals, “consider the cultural significance of the Kardashian family, and the various ways in which the Kardashian women, who are tremendously wealthy and present as white, have integrated elements of black culture as seemingly “natural” in their public bodily performances” (9). Although the Kardashian-Jenner family have faced public backlash for their collective appropriation they have acquired a tremendous “capital gain in terms of celebrity staying power and hyper-visibility” (Phelps 9). Despite the negative attention, Kylie Jenner’s expression of black culture has resurfaced the very issues that had once been historically deemed insignificant. In spite of Jenner’s cultural appropriation of black beauty, her promotion through Kylie Cosmetics continues to sell dreams of idealised beauty through the white lens.

In comparison, Rihanna Fenty’s cosmetic empire has been touted as a celebration of diversity and inclusion for modern-age beauty. Unlike Kylie Cosmetics, Fenty’s eponymous brand has become popular for its broader message of inclusivity across both skin tone, body shape and gender. Upon her product release, Fenty Beauty acknowledged a growing body of diverse consumers and as a direct response to feature models of diverse skin tones, cultural background and racial heritage. Perhaps more importantly, Fenty Beauty’s challenge to the ongoing debate around diversity and inclusion has been in stark contrast to Kylie Jenner’s ongoing appropriation of black culture. Images featured at the first brand and product launch of Fenty Beauty and in present day advertising, show South Sudanese model Duckie Thot and hijab-wearing model Halima Aden as central characters within the Fenty narrative, illustrating that inclusion need not remain ambiguous and diversity need not be appropriated. Fenty’s initial product line up included ninety products, but most notably, the Pro Filt’r foundation caused the most publicity. Since its introduction in 2017, the foundation collection contained range of 40 (now 50) inclusive foundation shades, 13 of these shades were designed to cater for much darker complexions, an industry first (Walters). As a result of the brand’s inclusion of diverse product shades and models, Fenty Beauty has been shown to push boundaries within the beauty industry and the social media landscape (Walters). Capitalising on all races and expanding beauty ideals, Fenty’s showcase of beauty subscribes to the notion that for women everywhere in the world, their dreams can and do come true. In conclusion, Fenty Beauty has played a critical role in re-educating global consumers about diversity in beauty (Walters) but perhaps more importantly Rihanna, by definition, has become a true embodiment of the ‘American Dream’.

Conclusion: Future Dreams in Beauty

It is undeniable that beauty advertising has remained complicit in selling unattainable dreams to consumers. In the context of ‘dream’ as a philosophical concept, it is more important than ever to ensure our dreams are mirrored, not as an ambiguous body of consumers, but as diverse and unique individuals. Changemakers in the industry such as Fenty Beauty are challenging this status quo and beauty advertising in general will have to evolve their strategy in a bid to answer to an increasingly globalised market. It must be reinforced however, that while “beauty companies and advertisers work effectively to reach a growingly multicultural market, scholars have a responsibility to assess the ramifications that accompany such change,” (Harrison et al. 518). If advertising’s role is to mirror consumers’ dreams then, our roles as dreamers have never been so important. 


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Author Biography

Nancy Johnson-Hunt, Auckland University of Technology

Nancy Johnson-Hunt is a former advertising strategist turned doctoral candidate at Auckland University of Technology. After almost a decade-long career within the Advertising and Marketing Industry, both in New Zealand and North America, she has recently returned to AUT University, joining the Popular Culture Research Centre in early 2020. Her 2012 Honour’s Dissertation at AUT, ‘Beyond Skin Deep’, investigated the representation of ethnic beauty, and the emergence of ethnic ambiguity in an annual circulation of NZ Fashion Quarterly magazine. Nancy’s research interests include the diffusion of advertising culture, construction of ethnic and racial identity across popular culture, and the influence of celebrity media in shaping everyday lives.