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Of mascara and make-believe

Date:12 November 2012
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Ipsos ASI
Keywords:Advertising, Brands, cosmetics
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Brand Republic

Once again, a set of digitally-enhanced eyelashes have fallen foul of the ASA’s guidelines. This time, Natalie Portman’s ‘stylistically lengthened and curved’ lashes for a Dior mascara ad were ruled to be misleading.  Previous eyelash offenders have included Penelope Cruz and Georgia May Jagger, in ads for L’Oreal and Rimmel which were also banned by the ASA for not being sufficiently clear about what the featured mascara could achieve, versus what a few lash inserts and post-production techniques could otherwise amplify.

One could argue it would not be improbable to expect that many a beauty or fashion image, be it in an ad or magazine, has been re-touched in some way. After all, make-up and fashion can be about enhancing what we have, exaggerating our positives – or it can be about trying on different looks, be they more subtle or fantastical.

However, there is a place and a market for ‘real’ women in beauty ads. The current Boots No7 campaign uses images which have not been airbrushed or re-touched and features models who have not had cosmetic surgery.  M&S is featuring women who are not of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley-proportions to showcase its Sexy Shapewear.  Dove sought to challenge commonly-held ideas of beauty with their Campaign for Real Beauty several years ago – and saw its share of firming products in the UK increase from one to six per cent. And on TV, the irrepressible Gok Wan’s surgery-free approach to helping ordinary women to look good naked and to feel good about themselves has proved popular.

But spare a thought for German women’s magazine Brigitte, which this year made a u-turn on its 2009 decision to use only real-life women instead of professional models in its photo shoots. Following its no-models decision, sales figures tumbled. The number of copies sold in shops reportedly fell by a third, and subscription numbers fell by one-fifth. Some readers wrote in to say that they were put under pressure by how beautiful ‘ordinary’ people in the magazine looked, which made them feel inferior as a result. Others talked about feeling distracted from the fashion when it was presented by normal women, and said “I approve of the idea, but would simply like to see fashion sometimes.”

We may well be looking for hope in a jar/bottle/tube or in that new dress/underwear/pair of jeans. And so perhaps a part of us wants to see glossy ads where beautifully-dressed models with impossibly long eyelashes and flawlessly luminous skin flash perfect smiles at us – even if we know they may not quite look like that in real life (as some celeb magazines and the Daily Mail’s latest ‘Photoshop fail’ story are often keen to point out).

And, as we’ve seen in Lancome’s Betty Boop ad, even a top model needs an imaginary beauty ideal for inspiration sometimes.

So what do we want from our beauty ads? Looking at the variety of products which fill up a typical make-up bag or beauty cabinet, the answer might be different depending on how the product is seen or used by its owner.  There are the fail-safe, go-to essentials that can be relied on to help us look and feel good. Perhaps ads showing real women – or even celebrity spokespeople who are a good match for the product and therefore seen as ‘authentic’ – might resonate with consumers here. 

There are products which are a little bit more luxurious and are seen as a treat or reward – perhaps a more aspirational approach in the advertising could help to make the product seem that much more special and covetable.  And then there are some products which we turn to for a bit of fun, to play dress-up or to glam things up – where ads with an element of fantasy (think MAC Viva Glam ads or going back a little further, the Shiseido Serge Lutens ads from the 80s) might appeal.

But (advertising) rules are rules. While aspiration and even fantasy in the advertising may appeal, at the end of the day we want our beauty products to deliver on our emotional and financial investment. And so maybe it isn’t so bad for the consumer to have the ‘truthful’ aspect of beauty product claims to be challenged every now and again.

Jo Lee is a Research Manager at Ipsos ASI and wrote this article for Brand Republic.
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