Beauty may be only skin deep but advertising needs to delve further to boost beauty brands’ engagement with consumers. The industry has been condemned for creating social standards and stereotypes of attractiveness and physique that an average person is unlikely to attain. Research on the effectiveness of advertisements using top models versus the “girl next door” suggests that highly attractive models make women feel unhappy about themselves and negative towards the advertised product.
There is of course a counter-argument for highly attractive models being inspiring and credible advocates of beauty products, but most manufacturers of mid-range beauty brands have taken criticisms seriously and downgraded the use of top models or unusually attractive endorsers in their advertisements. A big effort has been made since the noughties to strengthen women’s self-esteem and promote a healthy, normal definition of beauty that is attainable to consumers who are bombarded by advertising images around 5,000 times a day.
Advertising constitutes a powerful socio-educational source for consumers. Big corporations such as Unilever have taken corporate social responsibility very seriously and tried to educate their consumers on advertising “tricks” that distort our perceptions of beauty, such as Dove’s campaign for real beauty and its subsets like Evolution and the Self-Esteem fund. This is all good and prudent, but is it enough? Is the 2013 consumer of advertising messages still bothered about idealistic beauty standards and physiques? Things may be changing…
My research suggests that at least young and affluent female consumers are very aware of the issue: they have learned their lesson and stopped bothering with feelings of hopelessness and unattainability of model looks – they now focus on the brand promise. And they do not “buy” claims about beauty products making their lips fuller or eyelashes longer and curlier. As a matter of fact, they still experience some negative emotions and feelings of unattainability but not as a result of self-comparisons to the model; instead, unattainability stems from disbelief in products’ potential to change what are perceived as “non-malleable” body or face features.
An experiment using 240 female respondents aged between 18 to 35 years old and four different versions of print advertisements for beauty products confirmed that products such as lip plumper or eye cream and anti-wrinkle cream are perceived as targeting less malleable features than others such as foundation or hydrating creams. Guess what? Consumers may feel bad or annoyed by these advertisements aiming at less malleable features regardless of whether they are promoted by Gisele Bündchen or … Mary from next door. So, what can marketers and advertisers of beauty products learn?
Back to basics advertising needs to be socially responsible. Advertisements cannot contribute to lowering self-esteem and promoting unrealistic standards, especially not to adolescents. But it is not just about this – sure no one needs to be reminded of Gisele’s extraordinary beauty when they are buying hydrating or anti-wrinkle cream or a lip plumper. But nor does anyone want to buy a product that will not do what it promises. Does a lip plumper really give you fuller looking lips? I have bought a couple of these and aside from the burning sensation my lips did not look or feel “fuller” in any way. Would a “girl next door” advertising them change my feelings about this? I doubt it. If the brand really does what it claims, then convince me. Show me or talk to me about the product, communicate the technological advances and ingredients that will actually make this possible.
This brings us to point number two. Take control of the buzz around your beauty brands. Girls talk. And now they talk online too. We know it can be a nightmare to control social media – not to mention talk on them – but beauty brands need to take charge of this and educate consumers proactively. Launch an online community that discusses product trials. Engage with your current and potential consumers and answer their questions about how the product is going to work on them or whether it fits their expectations. Advertising will work differently on an “educated” consumer. Make sure you respond to negative testimonials and set the record straight. People are prone to negative bias, and a destructive review of a product will be more easily remembered than a constructive one. Make sure you seize this opportunity to take charge of the brand’s promise: don’t leave it to an advertisement to do the job for you.
Bottom line: be truly ethical. When did ethics in beauty products’ advertising become only about deconstructing the myth of beauty and lowering women’s standards? Beauty is also good, it is gentle and pleasant to the eye, in any case it lies in the eye of the beholder, and downplaying it is definitely not the only way to be “ethical”. Be ethical, keep your promises, make promises that you can fulfil. And research and analyse and invest on the way to do it. The answer is simple: innovate.
Continuously develop your offerings, invest on the latest advances in technology that actually improve physical appearance and help promote a healthy self-image. Engage the consumer in this innovation; listen to your forums and blogs, let consumers sit in the passenger seat next to you while you drive the car. What products have they tried? How do they feel about them? How much knowledge of their body do they have? What part of their body or face do they believe is readily malleable? Does this need to be addressed by a product? These are the questions you should be asking in order to identify your niche and target them carefully and honestly.