The troubling potential of SKII's Marriage Market Takeover campaign

A month ago, as part of their Change Destiny campaign, SKII launched a 4 minute short film that epitomises the sort of advertising cum social commentary that social media loves these days. With over 2 million views, Marriage Market Takeover has been called “lovely”, “touching” and “empowering”. 

Those very same words were used to describe Dove’s highly successful Choose Beautiful campaign. That is, before the backlash, notable enough to be covered by Forbes and The Guardian, which largely accused Dove of trivialising “the extraordinary pressure there is on women to conform to a certain ideal”(1). 

Could SKII be risking a similar backlash now? What can they do to boost the authenticity of the campaign?

If you haven't seen the film, watch it here.

As an Asian woman on the wrong side of 35, I fall squarely into SKII’s target demographic. I clicked on Marriage Market Takeover knowing that it was an ad. Yet when the mother cites her daughter’s “average looks” as a reason for her still being single, I, like most viewers, had tears in my eyes. There is no doubt it is a well-conceived and beautifully executed spot. Its sentimental portrayal of the women as daughters who bear the yoke of their parents’ hopes and dreams echoes that other recent great, P&G’s Thank You Mom.

But the film’s premise, that a feel-good exhibition is all it took to transform the older generation’s view of their daughters from “left on the shelf” to “liberated, independent power woman”, is tenuous. And the elephant in the room remains unacknowledged: The traditional idea of marriage as filial duty aside, what really perpetuates the sexist pejorative “sheng nu” in China?

As the camera pans over the wholesome yet gorgeous portraits of the women at the exhibition, only the most obtuse would fail to notice their pristine, dewy skin. (Digitally enhanced, maybe?) This is where many of us, subconsciously struggling to find the connection to the SKII brand, may draw an uncomfortable conclusion. Could the key takeaway be that it is OK to be an older unmarried female as long as you are confident, successful, outstanding…and have great skin?

Thus, the central idea of women finally being freed from a longstanding bias is muffled by the reinforcement of an even more unshakable notion: the old adage that one’s face is one’s fortune. By broaching a subject which is at odds with the overwhelming theme of the celebrity-anchored ads they are well-known for – the paramount importance of youthful beauty - SKII risks leaving consumers with a sense of having been manipulated, or worse, patronised.

At the end of the day, this is a make-up advertising… they just want to sell their product. There is a subliminal message on this which is “you can be a beautiful and independent woman by using our product”… nah… never believe this kind of campaign.
— Facebook User

SKII is at the junction between an amazing opportunity and a potential flood of damaging associations.

If they follow up on Marriage Market Takeover with concrete actions tackling negative perceptions of unmarried women in wider society, they have the potential to win over an increasingly cynical female market. This would include not just women in China, but, given the universal resonance of the issue, Asian women everywhere. 

To do so meaningfully, they could leverage collaborations with partners with common interests. For example, with an organisation that is already known for its commitment to women’s rights and/or a government agency with a mandate to promote gender equality. They may consider taking steps to overturn the patriarchal attitudes that drive desperate parents to put their children up for “sale” at marriage markets. Or target, in incremental steps, the shutting down of the marriage corner in People’s Square, Shanghai (the “Marriage Market” featured in the film).When real, positive change is achieved, they would have earned the right to trumpet their association with the issue.

The alternative scenario, in which SKII chooses not to engage with the issue in a more meaningful way risks alienating women who don’t want to be on the receiving end of “super-empowering”, PR-worthy advertising designed to exploit their insecurities and, well, sell more skin cream.

1. Referencing comments by Jean Kilbourne as reported in The Globe and Mail by Susan Krashinsky, 09 April 2015, Dove’s beauty campaign has ‘turned on the women it claims to champion’