Is Vanity Your Dentist’s Favorite Sin?

Can you imagine if your cardiology office began marketing services like pacemaker implantation, angioplasty, EKG and stress testing with ads that implied that they could help make you more physically attractive?

Well, that’s what dentist offices do, and they do it blatantly and with the assistance of the nation’s leading marketing, branding and identity firms. In their marketing, many dental practices emphasize the word “smile” as the major component of what they do, when, in fact, they are treating rather un-sexy maladies such as tooth decay, gingivitis, inflammation, exposed tooth roots, worn enamel and, every child’s (and adult’s) favorite: cavities. But it’s glossy pictures of those gorgeous, late-twenty-something models with perfectly aligned dentition, lounging on inoffensive beige furniture, glowing radiantly for the camera with copy like, “Let us take care of your smile”, “Trust your smile to us”, “Creating beautiful smiles every day”, “Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful”, “3 ways to a more beautiful smile”, “A smile is always in style” and, well, you get the idea.

Try Googling “dentist” and “smile” and you will get even more of an idea. It’s interesting, if you went strictly from these search results, you might understandably start to think that dentists do not treat children, or men, for that matter, and they certainly don’t treat Middle Eastern, Asian or African-American women. Or post-menopausal women. Or… women with short hair. It is one thing, of course, to have a “target market” but pretty much everybody in the world has teeth.

By marketing themselves as smile-ologists, the American dental profession does themselves a disservice, by distilling all of their training, knowledge, skills and experience and positioning themselves as modern-day Snake-Oil salesmen who have the key to youth, physical attractiveness and sex appeal. The fact of the matter is this: teeth are there so we can grind up our food, so we don’t all have to subsist on apple sauce, soup and mashed potatoes all day, every day. They care for our gums so that we do not get infections that can lead, interestingly enough, to cardiac arrest.

And, yeah, they can also fix your teeth if they’re a little crooked or whatever. If that’s a big deal to you.

We need to be careful about how we purvey services, what we emphasize and how we do so. What messages do we send to the public, to women especially? Are you somehow less-than if your canines are a little turned in? Are you a target for expensive, medically unnecessary procedures because you have been intentionally manipulated to feel insecure about parting your lips for a photograph? Did WE do that, and did we know we were doing it, and did we do it anyway?

When our industry combines forces with the dental profession to over-emphasize the importance of a smile, particularly a woman’s smile, we are saying that, without the “perfect smile” you are defective, deficient, in need of repair. This creates a climate where hyper awareness of one’s physical attributes can exacerbate underlying insecurities and can have cataclysmic results, such as the recent suicide of 11-year-old Bethany Thompson, a young woman who survived brain surgery, but could not overcome the relentless tormenting of school bullies who picked on her because of her crooked smile.

It’s okay, though. Just smile, baby.