Monday, September 26, 2011

Should We Reward Companies for Acknowledging There's More to Beauty Than a Pretty Face?

It’s been a guest post bonanza for me lately, and with two of my favorite blogs at that! On Friday I wrote about beauty and visibility at Already Pretty, and Saturday saw me at Sociological Images, sharing my thoughts about the Bare Escentuals ad campaign and its exploitation of models’ inner lives.

My thoughts on that aspect of the campaign are laid out over there, but the campaign intrigues me on other levels as well. For those who haven’t seen the ads: Bare Escentuals claims to have found “the world’s most beautiful women...without ever seeing their faces.” At the model casting call, applicants filled out questionnaires about themselves, and Bare Escentuals chose its models based on their answers and ensuing interviews. The company executives never saw the models until after they’d been selected.

Now, on its face it seems like a pretty great idea—even a feminist one, the idea being that it’s inner beauty that counts, or something. Jezebel did a nice job of looking at how the campaign appears to give Bare Escentuals some cred for being daring—but since the questionnaires were distributed at a casting call consisting of models and actresses (i.e. professional beauties), not, say, the DMV, the risk was minimal. (The legitimate risk that was identified by one of the executives—"What if all five of them were blonde, blue-eyed, and 30?"—turns out to be a boon for the campaign, and indeed my favorite aspect of the ads is that it shows that blind casting will naturally result in a more diverse pool.)

The campaign’s taglines intrigue me as well. They sound really nice, especially when accompanied by the smiling faces of the models in their (supposedly) everyday lives:
  • “Pretty attracts us. Beauty changes us.”
  • “Pretty can turn heads. Beauty can change the whole world.”
  • “Pretty is what you are. Beauty is what you do with it.”
  • “Pretty is an act. Beauty is a force.”
Now, we all know I’m a sucker for examining the words we use to describe women’s appearances. But on top of being semantically questionable (pretty is what you are, but beauty is what you do with it? whaaa?), the delineation seems odd when it’s being used to sell things we put on our face to make us look prettier. Bare Escentuals doesn’t sell slots in the Peace Corps, so what exactly is creating “change” here? By connecting itself with progressive dialogue on beauty, the company assures us that it understands our concern about wanting our rich inner lives to be seen as beautiful, and gets us to connect their products with our noble ideas on “change” and “force.”

Does it seem like I’m being uncharacteristically nitpicky? There’s a reason: Women have long been raising legitimate questions about the beauty industry, and while it’s nice to see a cosmetics company attempt to answer those questions, I also know that’s exactly what they’re banking on. Whenever a company identifies concerns of their target audience and attempts to ameliorate them through advertising, not through product change, we need to look even more critically at the message and its package. (And for the record, I don’t think Bare Escentuals should change its products—it’s a cosmetics company and it needn't be anything other than that.) By co-opting the messages many women have been saying—beauty comes from within, beauty is more than a pretty face—the company gets to look like it’s really listening, but it’s merely a variation on the same old theme. All advertising is. Advertising is never subversive.

I don’t think that the Bare Escentuals campaign is, like, offensive; I think it’s advertising. But in comparison to another recent campaign, its patronizing tactics come into sharp relief. MAC Cosmetics in the UK reached out to its avid fan base with its “online casting call for six models with style, heart, and soul to be the faces of MAC’s fall colour collection.” The six chosen models are diverse in age, race, and sex—and they look utterly fantastic. The end result showcases the products beautifully—they’re glamorous, transporting, and made all the more so by the audience knowing the makeover backstory.

Now, MAC’s whole thing is over-the-top transformation, as opposed to Bare Escentuals, a natural mineral makeup company specializing in, well, bare essentials (that smell good? I dunno, the name’s a mystery). MAC is able to highlight the actual products in ways that Bare Escentuals can’t, but to me that makes it all the more appealing. Ironically, through the glammed-up makeovers, we get to see more of the products and more of the people wearing them, allowing the campaign to succeed on two separate levels. I feel like “buying into” the MAC campaign is buying into the products. With Bare Escentuals, we’re asked to buy into abstract concepts of beauty that, if you’re concerned with such things, you’ve probably already confirmed on your own.


  1. "...the delineation seems odd when it’s being used to sell things we put on our face to make us look prettier."

    Ha! Exactly. "Real beauty is what counts... but please do something about that face of yours."

    The Pretty vs. Beauty ad copy reminds of me of the old Right Hand Ring ads: "The left hand rocks the cradle, the right hand rules the world. The left hand says 'us,' the right hand says 'me.' Ladies of the world, raise your right hand." So they sell you a diamond wedding ring first, then try to make it sound lame so you'll buy something shiny for your other hand. Sigh! I bet you remember these--- were you working at a magazine then?

    I'm not having much luck with mineral foundation, so even a glorious ad campaign won't tempt me into Bare Escentuals.

  2. Sigh, there's plenty of people making a mint on the "inner beauty" idea as well.

  3. Rebekah, OMG, I'd totally forgotten about those ads! I think that was one of those "trends" that nobody really did, buying your own damn diamond ring. (Though actually, I did buy into it, though with a pair of silver earrings, not a diamond ring. But DAMN if I didn't make a point of going to Tiffany's to buy it! Because I was INDEPENDENT and didn't need to wait for any MAN for that LITTLE BLUE BOX. Ugh. This was in the midst of Dating While Thin, does it show?)

    Terri, I think what galls me about it is that it's targeted toward people like me who are also critiquing "outer beauty." Like because it's taking a somewhat different view I'm supposed to play cheerleader or something. I mean, there are definitely people doing great work on self-esteem, but that's not generally about selling products--this is, and it grosses me out. Just give me the effin' eyeshadow!

  4. I don't get your point of wanting the company to change their products instead of changing the campaigning or advertising. I don't know of many women who would like their voices to be heard, and that voice being that they change the product. I think bareEscentuals does a great job of relaying the message that you don't need make-up to be pretty- you already are. All of the products are for women to use to make themselves feel more radiant, more beautiful, more defined- whatever each woman's purpose of wearing make up is. If a woman really just wants to cover up her face because she thinks she isn't pretty she would buy whatever cheap liquid foundation she wanted and slap it all over herself. I mean, what do you wear make up for? And if you don't, no woman can deny they don't sometimes wish they had been wearing some for a certain event or photograph. Women want to feel alluring, desired, wanted, envied, etc. It's just how we were made. We were made to be beautiful and eye catching and wonderful. So we find fun things to help ourselves achieve the ultimate being of that whether it be a new dress, new shoes, a new hair cut, or a new eye color that will make our eyes pop.
    If you find bareEscentuals to be foolish and ignorant, perhaps you also find that to be true of any designers who sell clothing that are slightly more revealing. I wouldn't be so critical of a company wanting to encourage women to enjoy themselves as they are, and to extend a helping hand if they want to highlight or enhance any features they enjoy most. They are empowering women. AND they are doing it with products that don't harm your skin- the products HELP your skin, the most natural thing about a person.

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