Tuesday, October 25, 2011

MAC, Transformation, and The Authenticity Hoax

Like any child of the late '70s might be, I was tickled by MAC’s recent choice of Miss Piggy as spokesmodel for the brand. It was the final step in winning over skeptical little moi, I thought: With a history of choosing unlikely models and collaborators—Johnny Weir, Cindy Sherman, hell, Cyndi Lauper—I’d been gradually warming to MAC despite initially being turned off by its flash. By the time they rolled around to featuring the porcine glamour of Miss Piggy, I was on board. “Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup,” I wrote when the news came out a couple of weeks ago, “and I like that MAC isn’t asking me to buy its product to make me a better version of myself.”

I particularly liked the MAC campaign in opposition to the “better version of myself” ads I was referring to. From Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign in 2004 to Bare Escentuals’ “Pretty is what you are, beauty is what you do with it” commercials, I’ve critiqued these ads as being only a step removed from “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline.”

By associating natural or inner beauty with their products, companies get to have it both ways, selling us potions as well as self-esteem. I saw MAC as presenting a more authentic alternative, one that acknowledged the metamorphic possibilities of makeup and that didn’t try to pretend it was selling us inner beauty. By selling us not our natural (but prettified) selves but our made-over, over-the-top fantasy selves, MAC emphasizes the very fact that it’s selling us transformation. All makeup sells transformation; MAC was just being more honest about it. Therefore I’m being more honest about it when I pay my $14 for its lip pencil, right?

What I didn’t see is that that’s exactly what MAC wanted me to do. I fell for what journalist Andrew Potter dubbed The Authenticity Hoax with his 2010 book of the same name. The idea is that since authenticity is the ultimate sell (who wants to buy something fake?), it makes an easily fetishized buzzword that can transform pretty much anything into profit—and that when we chase authenticity we’re seeking not truth but identity and status. And if that status is something that brings us a sense of being terrifically individual, even iconoclastic? All the better. By selling us transformation into our wildest, most creative, most individualized selves, MAC slips in through the back door to sell us authenticity.

I had been thinking that the role of authenticity in cosmetics marketing was unique because cosmetics are inherently inauthentic: Their entire purpose is to alter us into prettier or more glamorous versions of ourselves. In truth, though, both the “natural beauty” campaigns and the MAC approach are selling beauty authenticity, just different versions of it. Bare Escentuals (and Maybelline, and Revlon, and every other makeup brand that has relied upon the girl-next-door aesthetic) tries to sell us us an authentic version of our best selves; MAC tries to sell us a more authentic version of makeup. In fact, the MAC ethos wouldn’t work unless we were already souring on the peddling of “natural beauty”; as Potter reminds us in The Authenticity Hoax, “the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else.” We like MAC not only for its products but for its cool.

It’s not that I don’t like what MAC is doing, or that I don’t appreciate the inspired sensibility and tone of irreverence that led it to feature Miss Piggy as their latest model. I like that it openly acknowledges the crucial role gay men have played in the beauty industry. Hell, I like its products. But at its heart, we must remember that MAC is part of a major company, and that major companies are known for their abilities to find what resonates with their consumers, including uppity feminists who think they’re too savvy to buy into ads targeted directly toward them (ahem). MAC pushes the line of supposed subversion because it’s in the company’s interest to do so (and when they realize they’ve gone too far with their subversion, as with last year’s line inspired by Juarez, Mexico, aka “the capital of murdered women,” they scale back—as well they should). It’s not actually goodwill for MAC to acknowledge that drag queens use makeup, and it’s not actually more authentic for MAC to posit itself as the truest route to transformation—or for me to buy their lip liner because I feel like their ethos somehow fits with mine.

There’s nothing wrong with selling products or making money, of course—full disclosure, at various points in my life I have both earned and spent the stuff. But I for one need to check my tendency to not cast scrutiny upon a brand just because I prefer its flavor of false authenticity to that of another. We need to remember that MAC’s fortune is in its appearance of irreverence, not makeup. I disliked the Bare Escentuals campaign because I immediately recognized the ways it was preying upon our yearning to see a broader definition of beauty, and I felt manipulated. I didn’t feel manipulated by the MAC campaign because I deemed it “authentic.” Both companies make things that go on your face to make it look better, but each campaign would have you believe that they’re doing far more—that they’re giving us a long-awaited answer to legitimate complaints about the beauty industry. Bare Escentuals gives us acknowledgment of the other factors that make us beautiful—our activities, our diversity, our personalities. MAC tells us makeup is for fantasy and play, taking pretty much the opposite tactic as Bare Escentuals, but leading to the same place: sales.

MAC’s reputation as an edgy, alternative brand neatly obscures the fact that it is owned by a beauty behemoth. Estee Lauder Companies sold $8.8 billion in 2011 and is one of the biggest prestige personal care companies in the world. MAC began with an alternative vibe—two men named Frank, one an entrepreneur and the other a makeup artist, collaborating on a line designed to pop on-camera and to match a wider variety of skin tones than was available on the market in 1984. Today, though, MAC is not edgy. MAC is as corporate as it gets. Estee Lauder’s individual branding strategy—that is, marketing MAC distinctly separately from, say, Bobbi Brown, which is marketed separately from Clinique, Origins, and Aveda, while all of them belong to the same company—shows that Estee Lauder understands the value of positing MAC as living on the edge even though it’s anything but.

With any beauty product—with any product, period—what we get when we plunk down our money isn’t merely a mixture of petroleum and Red #7. We get whatever set of qualities the company imparts to us simply by bearing its own label. If I wear Chanel lipstick I get a nice shade and the satisfaction of knowing I am treating myself to a luxury good; if I wear Wet ‘n’ Wild I get a similar hue plus the 99-cent smugness of almost believing I’ve gotten essentially the same product for a song. It’s what is known in marketing circles as brand equity, or the value a brand has opposed to the actual product the brand represents. Every time we wink at MAC for being cheeky, irreverent, and driven by fantasy, we increase its brand equity. By buying into our fantasies about ourselves by believing the feedback loop a company sells us, we may increase a brand’s value without spending a dime.

And to be perfectly clear: I just may continue to do exactly that on occasion. Despite the mini-Marxist in me, I blog about beauty and am enthralled with many of its trappings, and sometimes that means being enthralled with colored bits of petroleum I smear on my face. But while I’m smearing, playing, smudging—while I’m transforming—I want to be as clear as I can about understanding what I’m doing.


  1. I don't mind this aspect of branding. I like to choose a brand with a point of view that resonates with my own even when I know it's all smoke and mirrors. In the end, I am still "voting" for that brand to keep figuring out what I want. So I don't have to. I am a lazy American...

  2. My lunch break is nearly over, so i won't leave a comment on your substance (I'll try to come back) but Andrew Potter? That's the guy from Rebel Sell/Nation of Rebels! I always mean to re-read that book, it makes valid points, though goes WAY too far in its assumption that people involved in alternative ways of buying reject capitalism as a whole. I buy fair trade because I want producers of the coffee I buy to get a fair wage for their labour, because I want to make fair trade profitable enough for it to become the norm, not because I want to bring down the system of coffee production. Obviously action that relies on buying things will help maintain capitalism. Railing against this counter-culture straw man really let that whole book down.

    Sorry, completely unrelated rant. I feel strongly about that book!

  3. "...shows that Estee Lauder understands the value of positing MAC as living on the edge even though it’s anything but."

    YES! See also Hot Topic, selling the illusion of tidy, convenient rebellion at a mall near you.

    Do you remember Apple's "Think Different" campaign? Beautiful black and white images of Albert Einstein, Martha Graham, John Lennon---- aligning famous minds with Apple. I found it icky. But then, Apple ads always irritate me, no matter how nice their products are. That 1984-type propaganda film, the smarmy Mac vs. PC ads---- ugh. So off-putting to me.

    I live an hour from Juarez, and am thankful I didn't hear of that MAC nail polish until now.

    Ms. Autumn, thank you for always giving me new things to think about. Or, if you prefer, about which to think.

  4. Marketing is marketing is marketing - exactly designed to take advantage of the fact that "With any beauty product—with any product, period—what we get when we plunk down our money isn’t merely a mixture of petroleum and Red #7." Actually, what we get (only tangibly, of course) IS that mixture of petroleum and dye - and how it looks when we apply it has nothing much to do with who made it. We ourselves bring the rest of the package to the transaction, and clever marketers are the ones who guess what that rest might be - our ideals, fantasies, insecurities, etc. Since makeup is makeup and I buy very little of it, I find it sort of a waste of time to try to purchase brands that might somehow be aligned with my deeper ideals, especially since it's so hard to determine the real nature of any of the major producers (corporate giants being what they are). I do make a small effort to avoid products that endanger wildlife, but that's about as far as I'm prepared to go. I think it's a bit disingenuous to expect a marketing campaign to take the higher ground when we all know from the git-go that the entire purpose is to sell product. It's up to me to decide why I am buying it, and I don't need the producers to agree with my ideals. I am a fan of looking through the hype to the "mixture of petroleum and Red #7" and taking it from there - does it do what I want it to do?

  5. I think the other-ness of MAC is the best thing it has going for it. I'm constantly surprised at the cult-like following it has with every collection it puts out every month (come on, that's what it seems like at least!). Though they are both owned by EL, I would never associate MAC with Bobbi Brown, which is the beauty of both brands.

    In any case, I use my MAC lipsticks every week. I would pass most other brands up for MAC or Inglot. I'm a sucker. Big time.

  6. Cameo, I like the idea of "voting" for brands whose ideology resonates with ours. My quibblings with MAC are largely theoretical, and certainly I'd rather be spending my money on a company that at least has the wherewithal to understand where I'm coming from. I just want to make sure I'm going in with my eyes open, so to speak.

    Franca, that book sounds interesting! My boyfriend writes about similar topics and I know he occasionally finds himself railing against straw hipsters. I probably do the same in a quasi-intellectual effort to untangle how I feel about something, in this case a brand strategy. In any case, thank you for the rec!

    Rebekah, the tragedy here is that Martha Graham used a PC. And thank you for giving me things "about which to think" as well!

    Marsha, ideally we'd all buy makeup (and other goods) based on the criteria you list here: Does it do what I want it to do? The thing is, we all think we do exactly that! And sometimes we probably do. But I know that even when I'm buying baseline generic goods, if it's at all a "luxury" item (say, lotion) I feel like I'm getting away with something, and THAT can be "brand equity," if you will. I don't expect ANY marketing campaign to take the higher ground--in fact, I don't think there is a higher ground for marketers to take. Marketing isn't, like, inherently evil or anything--we live in a capitalist society and marketing is a part of that. Hell, I market this blog. The idea is more that I'm trying to watch out for thinking that what *seems* to be marketing aligned with my ideals is actually aligned with my ideals instead of just being...marketing. (I'm certain I'd hate a marketing campaign that, say, quoted my work in its ads. You know?)

    Courtney, MAC is wonderfully prolific, and I do indeed love their lip pencils! Though I should really try some other brands too (maybe Inglot?)--I'm new to lip liner... We're all suckers, and what I'm going for here isn't so much that we should all be hanging our duped heads in shame. We all buy things based on marketing--good marketing works even on the more curmudgeonly among us, after all.

  7. While the anti-establishment vibe of MAC is nice, I also like how their cosmetics aren't tested on animals and that they have a recycling program for their products. So there's that, too.

  8. Chelsea, that's a good point. I'm all for corporate responsibility and have no doubts that the minds at MAC are innovators and socially responsible--they continue to impress. I just think it's important to not overlook the bottom line here--that everything we know about the company is a part of their public image, and that we buy that public image along with pigment every time we buy one of their products.