Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 5-Minute Facial Workout, and the Placebo Effect

Like this, but for your face.

It would be easy for a critical beauty blogger comme moi to make fun of the book “The 5-Minute Facial Workout: 30 Exercises for a Naturally Beautiful Face.” I mean, the setup is all there, beginning with the title of the first chapter (“Facial Gymnastics: Why?”—my question exactly), through its promises that exercises will “revascularize the dermis” for “significant” results of “a younger and more relaxed face,” all illustrated with photos of a pleasant-looking, vaguely yogic woman doing things like extending her tongue to the corners of her smile, or doing what looks like an exaggerated pout.

But, like I said, that’s easy. I don’t want to take a potshot at the author of “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” Catherine Pez, who has done a fine job of explaining how, theoretically, these exercises work. (In short, the idea is that by performing a daily ritual of face exercises, you strengthen the muscles of the face, thus ameliorating the saggy effects of maturity and helping to “sculpt” the face and keep it looking as it did before the ravages of time shat upon your visage.) Frankly, given that the entire book is a guide to facial gymnastics, it’s remarkable how non-goofy the exercises actually are. If you’re going to embark on a self-guided natural face-lift, you may as well do it with Pez leading the way and allow the book’s earnest, utterly guileless tone to carry you through. I wish you voluminous cheeks, stimulated neck fibers, fleshier lips, and all of the other things the book promises to deliver your way. Merry pouting.

No, the question here isn’t this actual book, or even the entire genre of face exercises, which includes not only “The 5-Minute Facial Workout” but sisters such as “The Ultimate Guide to the Face Yoga Method,” the “Tal Reinhart Facial Workout,” “Facial Fitness,” and my personal favorite, “Facercise.” The question of face exercise is really the question of what’s at the root of plenty of beauty work: the placebo effect.

Face exercises to prevent signs of aging are the ultimate candidate for the placebo effect: They work as well as you think they work. An aggregate study recently looked at nine individual studies that purported to find evidence that facial gymnastics worked to counteract signs of aging. But the authors of the aggregate study found that the “existing evidence is insufficient to conclude whether facial exercises are effective for reducing signs of aging.” None of the individual studies had a control group, none of them were randomized, three of them were case studies of a single person, and the highest number of participants of any study was 11. (Interestingly, the only studies the researchers could find were in South America, and indeed in Brazil it’s apparently considered a legitimate thing—aesthetic logopedics—stemming from facial exercises’ existing role in speech pathology. Anyway.) All of that may make for shaky research, but here’s the kicker: In all but one study, the participants themselves were involved with ranking results, with some of the studies’ results consisting entirely of merely asking participants if they noticed any changes after doing the exercises for a set length of time. So the people who had chosen to invest regular amounts of time in facial gymnastics were asked not only if said gymnastics made them feel better but if they made them look better. Most people wouldn't want to believe they’ve wasted their time fluttering their lips at themselves in front of a mirror for nothing, so is it any surprise that all participants said they’d noticed visible changes?

That’s not to say that they didn’t look better, though. And that’s the beauty—or the trouble—of the placebo effect when it comes to our appearance. When you’re talking about a quality as difficult to articulate as loveliness, merely believing that something “works” can be enough to lend you the light that you’re seeking. The practice or product itself becomes beside the point if the effect approximates what you were after in the first place. As beauty editor Ali put it in our interview a ways back, “If you just shelled out $300 for a cream, your brain is in this mode of, This is going to work. You have that optimism that can actually make you radiant. If you’re thinking, Oh, I just got this $5 bojangle cream, I don’t give a shit—then no, it doesn’t work.”

A red lipstick either reddens your lips or it doesn’t; you know immediately whether its essential task is fulfilled. But when it comes to products promising something more ethereal—like the “radiance” or “re-energizing” properties avowed by various creams and serums—who’s to say whether it works? Enter facial gymnastics, the promises of which are essentially immeasurable. "Redrawing” the chin? “Modifying” a “sad mouth”? “Strengthening” the “musculature of the eyelids”? Not to mention its vague assurances of improved circulation and cell renewal. Do enough facial contortions with enough devotion, and you just might see your eyelid musculature strengthened, because who even knows what a muscular eyelid looks like?

Of course, there’s a chance that placebo effect aside, these exercises do work. (Remember, the aggregate study said the evidence was inconclusive, not that the practice was ineffective.) For starters, practicing making your face more animated could conceivably lead to your face being more animated in daily life, and people with animated faces are more likely to be perceived as friendly and as leaders, thus making you possibly more attractive. And, of course, our faces do have muscles, and muscles can visibly grow with use, so, hey, why not. “The 5-Minute Facial Workout,” just $14.50, folks! (Of course, I’d argue that if you’re working your face in specific ways with aesthetic results in mind, you might well increase a generally unwanted aesthetic result—wrinkles—but I’m no dermatologist, yo.)

Still, there’s something underneath facial workouts that bothers me: In essence, these are prescribed drills of movements that most of us would perform in the course of a day. We smile, we frown, we press our lips together, we grimace, we tilt our chins upward. We move. But when these movements become formalized, they give birth to a promise: This will do something that living your everyday life won’t. It takes normal human action and shifts it from being something we do to live into something we do to stop the appearance of having lived. When I picture women doing these exercises in front of the mirror, the image that comes to mind isn’t one of relaxed joy or of self-care. In fact, the image is downright grim, though I hope I’m mistaken in this. Do these exercises if you wish, o ye of deflating cheeks; may it give you what you’re looking for, whether it be placebo effect or not. But I urge you to laugh about it too. Consider it a bonus workout.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thank You for Shopping: Customer Loyalty Programs

Spend $350 at the Red Cross and you get a free pint of O negative!

Yesterday, I was informed that I’d “unlocked” the “VIB Level” of Sephora’s customer reward program. What this means in Sephoraspeak is that by “earning” 350 “points” at the store, I will receive seasonal VIB-only gifts—presumably along the lines of the free lip gloss I received whilst shopping during my birthday month, back when I was merely a Sephora “Beauty Insider”—that I will have advance access to sales, and that I get “dibs” on new products, so that I will be the first lady on the block to have NARS’s newest nail polish in Quivering Otter, or whatever the color of the season is. 

What this means in you-and-me-speak is that I have spent more than $350 at Sephora—not, as the company would put it, “earned” more than 350 “points” at Sephora—since this time last year.

It was a shock to realize that I’d spent $350 at Sephora in the past 12 months, to be sure, but my financial navel-gazing is another post altogether. What “unlocking” this “VIB Level” made me think about was customer reward programs, and what we’re supposed to get out of them. With many customer loyalty programs, you actually save money. You might do this immediately/directly, as in my drugstore’s practice of advertising “specials” that are only “specials” if you are literally a card-carrying member of the drugstore’s loyalty program, or it might be savings down the line, as with frequent-flier miles. But the point is: You save money, as in cash, as in you have a compelling financial interest to use the loyalty program (which, of course, means that to some degree you’re loyal to the vendor, though of course consumers can belong to multiple loyalty programs, making them not loyal at all).

Sephora is a different beast altogether. You don’t save money with Sephora’s loyalty program; it’s more that you get the opportunity to spend more money at Sephora. I mean, sure, getting a free lipstick now and then might count as saving you money, if that shade and opacity of lipstick happens to be the kind of lipstick you’re looking for. Same thing with access to sales on specific products that I’d “unlocked” via spending 350 smackers. But as I hemmed and hawed over my possible “loyalty gifts” at checkout I realized that what I was spending my points on—which, as a reminder, are "points" "earned" because I’ve already blown plenty of cash there—were sample sizes of products I could then buy full-size versions of if I liked them. My options were things like a Sephora kit with a mini bottle of makeup remover, black liquid eyeliner, and a tiny gold shimmer creme liner costing me 500 “points,” or, as a token of appreciation for spending merely 100 dollar/points there, I could have a wee tube of makeup primer or something I think was called “lip sugar”?

If a company is going to supposedly reward me for being loyal to it, what I want them to give me as proof of their loyalty is what they have plenty of—money. I’ve got some thinking and research to do about loyalty programs before I come to any grand conclusions, but my hunch here is that part of why Sephora can get away with a loyalty program that promises specific goods, not money that can be spent anywhere, to its customers is that in some ways it’s truly a unique outlet—there are plenty of beauty stores out there, but few with the ability to try on nearly everything offered for sale from a variety of brands. (Estee Lauder’s technique of touching everyone who came into her stores translated into more sales of Estee Lauder products, but when Sephora associates touch you to guide you to the right blush for you, that touch is translated into sales for Sephora, regardless of the intermediary brand.) In this sense, Sephora doesn’t need to have a rigorous loyalty reward program—they don’t have a competitor that’s truly equal. Sephora doesn’t need to give you a financial discount for your loyalty; what Sephora needs to do (and has done) with its reward program is give consumers the sense that by shopping there, you’re special. You’re a Beauty Insider, or a “VIB” (which, by the way, acronym for…? Very important Beauty? Why, thankyou) if you accrue enough “points”. You get access to a VIB-only section of discussion forums; you get to attend private Sephora events. You get the sense of somehow being a part of something exclusive, even though the only reason you’re invited is because you’ve managed to drop enough cash there over time.

Still, the free-goods approach makes more sense when the goods are something of equal-ish value to all consumers—like, say, frequent flier miles and airline tickets. If I’ve earned enough miles to get a domestic ticket anywhere in the lower 48, well, great, I can go to Kansas or Los Angeles or the Outer Banks or wherever I want to go. But when I earn enough Sephora points, I get to choose between, say, a “Caviar CC Cream” for my hair or a self-tanning gel and maybe a couple of other things, none of which might apply to my desires. This might sound like the ultimate middle-class whine: Oh, after the three hundred and fifty dollars I spent at fucking Sephora I have to choose between hair caviar and a self-tanner, life is hard. But that’s not really my gripe here—sure, I like money back as much as the next person, but after one has “earned” 350 “points” by buying lip liner, one sort of forfeits the right to grumble about money per se. My gripe is the way this particular loyalty program uses its customers’ loyalty to reinforce its own importance and expertise: “Get a taste of some of our most coveted products,” coos the copy above the rewards you can choose from. Our most coveted products, not your most coveted products. That is: You don’t need to get money back from our loyalty program—trust us, the experts, to give you fair value. You’re literally paying to align yourself even more with the company; its loyalty program doesn’t just reward past loyalty, it engenders future loyalty too. I mean, one of the “gifts” you can opt for is the 250-point Sephora phone cover, which allows you to essentially pay Sephora $250 to advertise for it.

I’m wondering about people’s experiences with reward programs in general, whether it be at Sephora, another beauty company, or something like your grocery store. I have what’s probably a disproportionate amount of hatred for them, having grown up with a mother who steadfastly refused to participate in them because, as they tracked your purchases, it was “just too Big Brother.” (Side note: Her anti-surveillance stance dueled for years with her frugality, until she devised a compromise—she would participate in loyalty programs if they offered a steep enough discount, but she would only pay in cash so that the credit card companies couldn’t track those particular purchases. One Big Brother cancels out another, it seems, though even she will admit the logic is dubious at best. Anyway.) What are your experiences with customer loyalty programs? Do the returns seem worth it to you? Do the sorts of goods in question factor into your signing up—like, are luxury goods such as high-end makeup more or less likely to make you participate in a rewards program? And am I the only one who now wants to spend far less at Sephora now that I can so clearly see how much money I’ve been spending there?