The Ugly Truth About Beauty Ads

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A new study from Spain’s University of the Basque Country says it doesn’t matter whether cosmetics actually do the things they claim to do. Instead, we buy beauty products because of the way they make us feel.


The study also found that women were most satisfied with products that evoked positive emotions through the ad campaigns. Ads that emphasized women could pamper and take care of themselves by using the products produced the greatest consumer satisfaction, indicating that we’re more concerned with how cosmetics make us feel on the inside than how they make us look on the outside.


I think we can all agree it’s a good thing that the days of beauty ads that focus solely on how makeup can make you prettier for the purpose of snagging a husband are (mostly) over. But are the ads about self-care and feminine indulgence all that much better? On the packages, beauty products from foundation to hair color say, Take Care, Love the Skin You’re In, and Because You’re Worth It. The language may seem as if it’s just about harmlessly encouraging women to invest a little time and energy (and money) in their appearances, but what do those taglines really say? They say, You could be so pretty if you’d only try. They say, Only lazy women don’t preserve their beauty. They say, Don’t let yourself go.


Even Dove, which has been lauded for the positive messages of its Real Beauty campaign isn’t exactly innocent. After all, Dove is still trying to sell lotion and shampoo, so it has to create a need for the products, and that need starts as a tiny kernel of doubt in the consumer’s mind—one that the advertisement itself puts there. The outward, self-esteem-boosting message may be You’re Perfect Just the Way You Are, but the implication is, But You’d Be Perfect-er Without Those Dry Patches.


Cosmetic advertising capitalizes on and perhaps reinforces the idea that no matter how strong our self-esteem may be, women still worry. We worry that we aren’t doing what we should to fight wrinkles and sun damage or keep our hair frizz-free. We worry that we’re not doing as much as other women, who’ll be rewarded for their efforts. And yes, we still worry that men will choose those other women who put in the time and effort, and won’t choose us if we don’t.


It’s not exactly a revelation that women buy cosmetics for a whole host of reasons besides how well they work. We buy cosmetics because of how they smell, because they have the perfect amount of viscosity, or because they trigger pleasant memories. We buy them because of how ergonomically the bottle fits into the palm of our hand; because they’re on sale, or the label is pretty, or we like the actress who endorses the products. Advertisers know that buying and using cosmetics are emotional experiences that go far beyond a product’s efficacy so it makes sense that their ad campaigns often tug at our desires and of course, insecurities. So in the end, it’s still all about making women feel guilty about something. It’s advertising—what else is new?

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