Does advertising corrupt cosmetic science?

This recent story about P&G being cited by the NAD for publishing misleading mascara ads and their subsequent vow to stop doing it makes me ponder whether advertising and marketing corrupt cosmetic science.

I haven’t really concluded one way or another but consider…

No it doesn’t

In the United States we have a law that makes it illegal to publish false advertising. You can say whatever you want about your products but you can’t lie. This means that every magazine ad, television commercial, radio spot, or claim on a website should be technically true. This means that if a company is making a claim, they must have some rationale for substantiating that claim.

So, if you say your shampoo cleans hair, you have to be able to demonstrate that the shampoo removes dirt & oil from your hair. This is pretty easy to do and is such a well established fact that no one would really question you for making the claim.

Similarly, moisturizers have to moisturize, hair gels have to hold hair, a lipsticks have to color lips.

This type of advertising does not corrupt cosmetic science.

Maybe a little

The problem with advertising is that if you say the same thing as everyone else, you can’t really stand out. For this reason cosmetic companies try to go beyond the standard claims. They make claims that are technically true (at least in a court of law) but imply something that is not true.

For example, a company may create an Aloe Vera body wash. From a practical standpoint, it will be the same formula as their standard body wash but they will put in an aloe vera extract, color the product green and add a fresh green scent. Since consumers have already identified Aloe Vera as moisturizing, healing, or otherwise “good” for their skin they will naturally associate this new body wash with the positive thoughts they have about aloe. Functionally, the new product is no different than the old product.

Is this corrupting the science? A little.

But the truth is, consumers are not interested in purchasing the most functional product. They want the glitz. They want pretty packages, colors, and fresh scents. If you create the best functional product you will not last long in the cosmetic marketplace without some glitz.

Maybe a lot

The advertising by P&G shows that indeed the cosmetic industry can be corrupted by misleading ads. When they take a model and airbrush out her lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone, they are crossing the line into false advertising. Or at least that is what the NAD said in this case.

I would suggest that this isn’t the only way that companies mislead. Sometimes they use science and their cosmetic chemists.

In the area of hair care, one of the most misleading claims about products is the one where they say it “makes hair 10 times stronger”. Or maybe they just say 2 times or 5 times or whatever. This is a lie. No hair product can make hair twice, 5 times or 10 times stronger. Hair products have very little effect on the strength of hair.

So how do they get away with making the claim?

That’s where science comes in. The claim is based on the fact that the product prevents hair from breaking and splitting. Scientists simply run a robotic comb through hair a number of times and they count the number of hairs that are broken. If you compare that to a control, you can get a measurement. So, if your product has 10 hairs broken and the control has 100 hairs, you can say it is 10X better. That would be turned into 10x stronger. But it’s not 10x stronger! You’ve simply reduced the probability of breaking hair.

In a court of law, you could probably support a claim like this so technically it is not lying. But from a scientific standpoint, I would argue that it is.

What to do

I always had a slight problem with the way science was manipulated by advertising to tell a story. However, there is no denying that glitz and story telling is more convincing to people to buy a product than the straight scientific story. You will be faced with the same dilemma as a cosmetic formulator. So, how do you handle it?

1. You could quit. Indeed, if this type of ethical dilemma troubles you, you probably shouldn’t be in the cosmetic business. You should go to a university and get a professor job. Success in the cosmetic field requires a little story telling.

2. Try to keep marketing honest. This is the approach that most cosmetic chemists take. You just need to be aware of when marketing is trying to cross the line too much and push back. Tell them if they are being blatently dishonest. In the P&G case, I wonder if any of the cosmetic chemists complained about the advertising.

3. Make the best products you can. This was always my approach. I figured if I made excellent products then even if people bought them with one expectation they would still be satisfied even if it performed differently than they expected. Yes, they may have bought the conditioner because they thought it was making their hair stronger. But it’s an excellent conditioner and whether it makes hair stronger doesn’t matter. Consumers don’t really want stronger hair anyway. They want hair that won’t break.

The cosmetic industry is part science and part business. Sometimes the business part may make you feel a bit uncomfortable but the reality is if people don’t buy your product your company won’t be around to keep you employed. And as long as you are producing the best product you can, don’t worry too much about what your marketers and advertisers are doing. Just do your best to keep them honest.

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