Wednesday, July 29, 2015

News Flash: Beauty Consumers Aren't Suckers



The headlines regarding this recent study about claims made in cosmetics ads indicate things like "Most 'scientific' beauty product claims are bogus." As per usual, the headline isn't accurate at all; the study measured whether product claims were seen as accurate, which is an entirely different matter. Luckily, the question of whether customers think products are bogus is arguably more interesting than whether or not they actually are, so let's go from there—

In short, the study found that women think most beauty ads are bullshit. And appropriately so: They found ads that directly claimed superiority over other products to be flat-out false, and ads based on science to be vague or omissive. Interestingly, the ad type that was perceived as being most acceptable was endorsements—which makes sense, as most of us implicitly understand that at the very least, the person making the endorsement is agreeing of her own free will to make it (even if it's a talking-head fee, not the product's efficacy, that prompts the agreement). And cannily executed, an endorsement, particularly a celebrity endorsement, can be effective if the consumer sees a reflection of herself in the spokesperson.

So we're not suckers for iffy advertising; that's great. But if we actively do not believe the advertising, why are we buying the products? Reputation? Curiosity? Joyful participation in consumerism? Hope? The study I'd really like to see is one in which women who actually buy these products (I include myself here) judge the ads. I'm just as skeptical as the women in this study, but my bathroom shelf has plenty of products that make science-ish claims on it. I do my research, sure, and if I don't think I see any change I don't buy a product again. But the trick of the beauty industry lies in that little blip: If I don't think I see any change. Most things that come in a jar are going to have effects so subtle that their effectiveness is largely in terms of perception, not anything measurable. I think the retinoid cream I use helps keep my skin smooth, but do I know?

The science of beauty ads isn't meant to educate consumers on polymers and retinoids. The science only needs to be assuring enough to fill in that gap between thinking and knowing a product is "working," whatever any consumer's definition of "working" might be. Cosmetics' science claims don't hold up independently, and they don't need to. They just need to hold up enough to nudge us right over the border of where hope and possibility meet.

I've talked with plenty of women about why they wear beauty products, specifically makeup and how it plays into women's day-to-day routines, but not so much about why they buy them. Tell me: What goes through your mind when you're deciding whether to purchase a product? Are you evaluating the product's claims, parsing the words on the label? Are you going by what trusted sources have said? Do you go into a purchase with cynicism, or hope, or both?

27 comments:

  1. For me it often comes down to what seems the most reasonable when I'm standing in the beauty aisles at Target or a drugstore; plus a combination of affordability and experience I've had with the product before. so basically: I make last-minute decisions based on pretty packaging. Makeup marketers love me.

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    1. "Makeup marketers love me"–ha! I think I suffer from drugstore paralysis: I'll stand there forever and walk out with nothing. I buy about half my makeup at drugstores but it's always the same exact things. I guess makeup marketers are meh about me and my diehard habits...

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  2. I am a practical buyer for the most part. There are mostly care products on my shelf and for purchasing those I rely on the brand (I like certified eco-companies and few brands that are sold in pharmacies) and on personal experience (buying the same products over and over again, and doing so during sales, so I would save some money and never run out of my favourite products). Before buying something entirely new, I usually do some review research in local beauty blogs that I trust and I also do price comparison to decide whether to purchase in store or to order online from abroad (although it takes longer to get the desired product, but sometimes there can be considerable savings). All this effort is for one reason only - I hate to feel remorse after purchasing something that, turns out, isn't going to be used as planned. I instantly think of ways how this money could be spent better, and it applies to all sorts of goods - food, clothes, devices. I think this "don't-be-wasteful" approach comes from my grandmother who I spent a lot of time together till my teens. She had survived the WW2 and experienced the hardships within USSR after that, and thus had become a master of re-cycling of all sorts. I think I must have absorbed many of her teachings.

    My occasional inconsiderate slips in purchasing are related to cosmetics like mascara, eyeshadow etc., as for those I do not have my favourites yet. When I do, I'll probably stick with them as long as they will be manufactured.

    "The science only needs to be assuring enough to fill in that gap between thinking and knowing a product is "working," whatever any consumer's definition of "working" might be." About this. I agree completely. Autumn, have you read the book "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg? There is a story about marketing of toothpaste in USA: why one brand succeeded while other similar brands didn't. Advertisement was important for the case and it made people buy the toothpaste. But the reason why they kept buying and using, and recommending it was another one. The consumers had finally found a product that "worked". While other toothpastes just did the job and helped cleaning the teeth, this other product left some tingling sensation in the mouth as well. And if you feel differently after using something, it must be working, right? There is no other reason to put certain ingredients in products other than creating the feeling of "it works" in the minds of consumers. And I'm not above it as well. Why else would I want my shampoo to foam in order to be sure that it will clean the hair? Weird human nature.

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    1. I haven't read "The Power of Habit" but it's now on my list—sounds fascinating. I did a science project on shampoo in seventh grade and was shocked to learn that the foam did nothing. Does that knowledge mean that when I have the rare non-sudsy shampoo that I feel just as clean? Noooo...

      I try to stick with the "don't be wasteful" approach myself—it can be hard, particularly with, as Lara points out below, the vast variables that go into whether something "works" (and which I'm guessing is why color cosmetics are the ones you haven't found favorites for yet—just the slightest tint can make something be perfect, or off). A creature of habit I am! I don't really get a thrill out of trying new products. Though recently I got excited about a new self-tanner and when it turned out I was allergic to it I couldn't bear to waste it so practically forced it upon a friend of mine!

      I've wondered how various women in post-Soviet societies treat makeup accumulation, and how that differs between women who grew up in the USSR and those who came of age after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Slavenka Draculic's writings report on purchased beauty products as an alluring talisman of the west, but nowadays, when I've visited post-Soviet societies, it doesn't seem all that much different than in the States, though I'm just going by what I see; I haven't traveled to the region since I started writing about beauty myself. I don't mean to make you a study of one but if you have any thoughts on this I'd love to hear 'em!

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    2. If I think about makeup accumulation by women who experienced USSR in their teens/twenties and those who didn't, it is actually hard to tell how their makeup habits were influenced by it. Because you also have to divide them by income, occupation, general priorities in life, family issues, overall quality of life, and the city vs countryside effects. Oh, and ethnic roots are at play here as well - Latvian women have a different approach to this than Russian women. I haven't done any studies or surveys myself, but this is what I came in mind first, and this is an opinion/observation, not something I can prove.

      If I recall correctly, my grandmother only had fragrance, a facial cream, lipstick and some powder and maybe some simple eye make-up kit on her shelf, but only used the facial cream and fragrance on daily basis. My mother has significantly more, but often she fails to use the make-up products correctly. For example, she buys foundation that is too dark for her complexion or low-quality eye shadow and then says she hates putting make-up on because she looks ridiculous with it when the problem could be solved with different products and her learning some more skills of applying make-up. But at the meantime I actually know women (from work etc.) at the same age as my mother, and their "relationship" with cosmetics is the complete opposite: they have learned how to put it on just in the right amount and how to choose the right products, so the cosmetics works for them very well. The difference I just described might be due to variety of factors I mentioned already, most important of which I would say are income and occupation, and family "heritage". For example, my mother is a vet at the countryside, and she works with farm animals besides cats and dogs, so nail polish is out of the question for her (in special occasion only). Her skin and eyes are highly sensitive, so daily make-up is not a good option as well as it compromises the overall state of her skin (therefore the lack of skills in applying it). She also tries not to be wasteful on her resources, but this is the reason she ends up with not so good products, and I try to buy her something better to replace them, but often she would not allow me. Plus, hard work was the #1 value in her family when she grew up, and I guess my grandmother failed to show the example of the little feminine joys that make-up could provide. Whereas the colleague I mentioned works in the office, has no garden or animals to tend to (so less factors that mess up the manicures), her income is significantly higher (that is a guess, but I know my field), so she can afford to spend more money on herself, cosmetics included, without it impacting her overall state of finances. I can't really tell about the family "heritage" of the colleague, but I would guess from conversations we've had that her family was more healthy than that the one my mother grew up in, and I would also guess that these psychological factors are also at play when people choose things for their life.

      I also googled around a little bit, but had very poor results. My own guess would be that post-USSR women find it easier to spend more money on cosmetics (any kind, be it makeup or lotions), because they feel they "deserve" to spend money this way, and it is "what normal women do, for themselves". Post-USSR women have experimented more and failed more at applying make-up during their teens (take myself as example), just because there was more of it available. On the other hand, many USSR women might think of cosmetics as "luxury", and if they have not learned how to use it in their younger years, they might be afraid to use it later or they might even consider the cosmetics useless for them or not meant for them at all.

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    3. I was really happy that you gave me this question to think about, and hope that what I've written helps in some way. I feel that I might get back to researching it when I have more time, and if I will come up with something good, I will share it here.

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  3. I think it turns out that there's so much individual variation in what "works," that buying products to try is like doing an experiment with a n of one. A lot of effective products/therapies of all sorts work for some bodies and not others. (It's also true of Pilates/Yoga/PT/bodywork etc.). Bodies are really complicated, and less standard than we might wish. I tend to break out, so when I need to try something new -- maybe my skin has gotten dry this season so I need a moisturizer with SPF -- I need to experiment on myself to find what won't make me break out, or smell weird to me, or whatever. I start trying things based on recommendations and advertising claims, since how else would I know where to start? And I have to judge their efficacy on my own body, as hard to discern as it might be, since I don't care whether 50% of users get results; I care if I get the desired result.

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    1. But, I should also say, I'm a big believer in doing and using the science when it's available. Especially when it's not possible to judge the results by taking note of my own experience, I make decisions based on the available studies. I've blogged about that here, with regard to medicine: http://nursingclio.org/2015/01/20/can-a-gluten-free-diet-qi-gong-or-ballet-barre-cure-my-ms-only-a-randomized-controlled-trial-can-say/

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    2. Great point, Lara. When I was working in women's magazines and would ask a beauty editor for recommendations on various products, it was rare that she'd just hand over something; she'd nearly always ask a handful of questions, particularly when it comes to something like skin or hair care as opposed to color cosmetics (which either stay on or don't, or clash with your skin tone or complement it; there's still a huge variety but in some ways it's more cut-and-dried and, as Signe says above, once you've found it, you've found it). Point is: People whose job it was to educate consumers on beauty products knew that an individualized approach made sense. Which is interesting now that I think about it because it goes more along the "personalized" version of 19th-century medicine you wrote about in your (excellent) piece.

      The beauty editor I trust the most told me that sticking with the big brand names was often the way to go for skin care, because those are the companies that have the money for the research and development to do the equivalent of the randomized controlled trials you wrote about. Those studies take a lot of resources, and the adorable handmade skin cream made out of some lady's kitchen in Brooklyn might be great for any individual's needs (and might smell nice, and might "work" too) but she doesn't have the backing to do a big study, whereas, say, Proctor & Gamble does. My knee-jerk reaction is always to support the little guy but honestly, with my skin care I stick with the big guns!

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  4. I love spending time reading The Beauty Brains and Beautypedia reviews and use prescription Retin A. Occasionally I like to try new products but I usually look them up first and I usually go for the least expensive option although sometimes if there's something with a much nicer texture or feel for a higher price I will pay it. I love the look of beautiful magazine ads but I guess they don't have much of an influence on my buying habits.

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