The ‘Ugly Betty’ of China

Beauty products are a large part of the consumer culture in Beijing.  There are countless stores and stands all over the city that sell the beauty product du jour for a variety of prices.  Among these products, Dove is an established brand that Chinese people and foreigners alike purchase.

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The models used for Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Dove advertised ‘real beauty’ opposed to the stereotypical model look after a study revealed that female clients respond well to realistic perceptions of beauty.

In 2004, Dove launched a Campaign for Real Beauty after a major global study showed female clients have positive responses to natural perceptions of beauty in advertisements.  Over a four year time period Dove used realistic, attainable looking models in their advertisements instead of typical models to advocate natural beauty.  The Campaign for Real Beauty was a part of the Dove Movement for Self-Esteem.  It was a bold new vision to celebrate real beauty and offer a younger generation a voice telling them it is okay to look the way you do.  This campaign went all over the United States, Europe and China. The campaign was very well received in the United States and Europe because of the realistic women modeling in the advertisements.  However, unlike the United States and Europe, the Campaign for Real Beauty completely flopped in China.

Advertisements with bigger models and no digital enhancements did not appeal to Chinese customers. According to one source Chinese women believe that the stereotypical ‘model’ look (thin, flawless skin, and silky hair) is attainable.  They believe that using this product is supposed to help them attain this particular look; therefore, Chinese women did not respond well to an advertisement with models that are not typically considered beautiful.

In China, the failure of Dove’s ‘real beauty’ advertisements prompted a variety of reactions.  Outside of China, this failure prompted confusion: why didn’t this campaign that advocated healthy, natural beauty for women of all sizes appeal to Chinese women? Within China, Dove’s campaign prompted a multi-media reaction that began in September 2008.

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The female lead character in ‘The Invincible Ugly Woman’ portrayed by frizzy hair, large glasses, braces and mismatched clothing. The similarities between the Chinese character and the American character lie in their physical characteristics. She is not conventionally beautiful, but her intelligence and ambition is what drives her success.

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Star of America’s ‘Ugly Betty’. Throughout the show, she has glasses braces and frizzy hair.

Most Americans are familiar with a television series called Ugly Betty. It is the story of a young woman named Betty living in New York City who is ambitious, intelligent, and, by most conventional thinking, unattractive.  She is the secretary to the handsome, charismatic but spoiled editor in chief of a fashion magazine.  The plot line throughout the show teased viewers of a possible love interest between the unconventional Betty and her handsome boss.  After Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty flopped, Unilever, the owner of Dove, approached Hunan TV broadcast network in China with the idea of creating an ‘Ugly Betty’ television series in China. Unilever offered Dove to as a ‘product placement‘ throughout the show. The idea was well received and thus ‘丑女无敌’ (Chou Nv Wu Di) or ‘The Invincible Ugly Woman’ television series was created.

The plot of ‘丑女无敌’ was very similar to that of Ugly Betty.  An unattractive but intelligent woman goes into a big city looking for work but is turned away from jobs based on her looks and clothes. Finally she is hired as an assistant to the handsome editor of a fashion magazine.  ‘丑女无敌’ ran for three seasons, only one season less than its American counterpart ‘Ugly Betty’.  China is not the only country to do a spin-off of Ugly Betty.  Mexico’s ‘La Fea Más Bella’ (The Most Beautiful Ugly Woman) began in 2004 and had its final season in 2007.

In my opinion, the success of ‘丑女无敌’ relates to why Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty failed to launch in China.  The television show overplayed the stereotypical perception of beauty by dressing the main character with glasses, braces, frizzy hair and mismatched clothes. She overcomes other people’s prejudices by using her intelligence and ambition. The message the show advocated is similar to that of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty however it was presented through Chinese media and portrayed by Chinese stars. What Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty lacked was models who were relatable to the Chinese demographic. The models they used were typically Western looking; Asian models were seldom used.

Beauty is a priority for Chinese women. The stereotypical looks portrayed in beauty products and fashion advertisements are viewed as attainable in China, that is why beauty products and their advertisements are ubiquitous in Beijing. In China there is a certain pressure for women to fit the feminine stereotype and having typical feminine qualities. However, there is also pressure to perform well in school and at work.  The television series ‘丑女无敌’ offered Chinese women the best of both worlds. The main character starts out at the bottom and through determination and hard work achieves her dream when she is accepted into the fashion world. After she rises to a respectable position within the magazine, her friends who have supported her all along give her a makeover. She becomes beautiful and fashionable which makes her old boss fall in love with her.  The plot line captures the dream combination for Chinese women: beauty and success.

The entire series of ‘丑女无敌’ is available on Youku. Here is a link to the pilot episode.