When it comes to questionable science claims in advertising, you rarely need to look further than the cosmetics industry. Just two weeks ago, two magazine advertisements by French cosmetics giant L’Oréal were banned by Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority following a complaint by a Member of the UK Parliament. The ASA found that L’Oréal had misleadingly airbrushed photos of Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts in a way that exaggerated the purported enhancing effects of two of its foundation products. In both cases, the claims being made were explicitly scientific, ones that clearly implied a basis in research-sourced empirical evidence.
The pic of Christy Turlington was alleged to support the claim that the product could produce a “natural light” from human skin, and that this effect had been established following “10 years of research“. In their submission to the ASA, L’Oréal said their research had focused on “the optical properties” of skin, and on how to “reinforce the skin’s radiance” and “improve its ability to reflect light“. Meanwhile the photo of Julia Roberts was used to show how another product had been developed to exert “anti-aging” effects.
The ASA, however, felt that all this was bunkum, and banned the ads.
This is not the first time that L’Oréal have been criticised for manipulating advertising images to falsely enhance the apparent effects of their products. A famously egregious example concerned a 2007 TV ad for eye-lash-lengthening mascara in which Penélope Cruz was shown wearing false eye-lash extensions. More disturbingly, other criticisms have related to suggestions that L’Oréal’s retouching of photographs (and even their choice of models) betrays a systematic racial bias.
The use of false science claims, spurious jargon, and exaggeration of trivia in such advertising has often been ridiculed. For example, to help highlight the way consumers can be misled, CHOICE Magazine, a publication of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, produced the following memorable spoof commercial:
Precisely why the cosmetics industry is such a particular offender is not immediately clear. One possibility is that, because their target customers are generally not familiar with the technical nuances of dermatology or biochemistry, the industry feels simplistic language is required to successfully communicate the benefits of particular products. A second (and less benign) possibility is that the cosmetics industry is so focused on enhancing appearances, it maintains this ethos when formulating statements to describe its own products; why bother with achieving genuine substance when you can simply polish up the surface and gloss over blemishes? And a third (pretty much malign) explanation is that cosmetics products are almost universally so close to useless as to virtually obligate advertisers to exaggerate their heads off in order to sell anything to anybody.
However, exaggeration per se is not strictly necessary. What if you could simply get away with couching your claims in a certain tone, one that sounds convincing but which subtly avoids making explicit exaggerations? Sometimes ambiguity or idiom will suffice. Consider the following recent TV commercial, once again from the L’Oréal stable:
In this commercial, 41-year old British actress Rachel Weisz expresses her devotion to L’Oréal’s Revitalift face cream, declaring confidently: “It works!” Sure it does, Rachel. But what is this product actually supposed to do? Well, according to the product’s website, it is “not a facelift” (I’m pretty sure we can say that Rachel is right and that Revitalift works at not being a facelift), but instead can be described using large-print terms like “anti-wrinkle” and “firming“. Now a casual observer might take these terms to imply a capacity to eliminate (or reduce) wrinkles and to firm the skin, yes? Well, not so fast: a close reading of the small print tells us that Revitalift…
…reduces the appearance of wrinkles and leaves skin feeling firmer around the eye area [emphasis added].
You see? It affects “appearances” and “feelings” as opposed to, well, actual skin. The script for the TV commercial reinforces this equivocation: Rachel’s skin “feels” firmer, her lines “seem” to fade. And in a deft dodge of potential legalistic accusations, L’Oréal go on to invent their own verb: they tell us that the product will “revitalift your skin” (how do we know if they’re wrong?), an effect that L’Oréal says “makes all the difference” (to what, we’ll never know).
Such TV commercials can be very subtle in distorting their scientific message. The mere mention of banal vitamins like retinol (or non-existent ones like “pro-firmyl“), together with statements implying demonstrable efficacy (“It works!“) and rigorous investigation (“10 years of research“), is sufficient to distract from pedantic disclaimer-like terms such as “appear to” or “seem to“. Rather than using fake eye-lashes, airbrushed photographs, or made-up biology, cosmetics advertisers nowadays keep one step ahead of the regulators by using gentle ambiguity when conveying their message.
Worldwide, the cosmetics industry generates around $170 billion in sales each year. That’s around $465 million per day. Here’s what else you could do with $465 million per day:
- Wipe out the famine and drought currently ravaging east Africa in less than a week, or
- Pay the entire annual bill for all of the UN’s worldwide peace-keeping missions in just a fortnight, or
- Completely re-build post-earthquake Haiti in a month, or
- Buy these things.
Then again, I suppose they’d say they’re worth it…
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.