14 August 2015

Advertising Cosmetics

Welcome back. Were you a fan of Mad Men, the hugely popular, award-winning television series that ended last May? Seven seasons, 92 episodes of personal drama set against advertising in the 1960s, and I never got around to watching a single episode.

Though I don’t need any reminder of the 1960s, I’ve always been intrigued by the way advertising expands on the truth. I hope you won’t mind if I address that topic again.

I say “again,” because about a year ago, I blogged how advertisers were able to increase trust in their product by adding scientifically formatted dat
a to their sales pitch--data that offered no additional information (Science Increases Trust).

In the addendum to that blog post, along with taking swings at tobacco and other advertisers, I mentioned a study that found 57% of television drug advertising claims were potentially misleading and 10% were false (Science Increases Trust Addendum).

A recent study of magazine ads for cosmetics suggests that score isn’t too bad. 

Advertisement for a LancĂ´me Paris
cosmetic. (Multiple websites)

Evaluating Magazine Ads for Cosmetics

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Valdosta State University and Cleveland State University examined the extent to which claims made in cosmetics ads contained deceptive content.

The ads appeared in the April 2013 issue of seven of the most popular women’s fashion magazines. (The April issue presents the newest trends and an above average number of ads for the year.) The ads encompassed makeup, skincare, fragrance and body, hair and nail products, and they were all full page.

The researchers devised a system to categorize the ad claims. They labeled the categories (example claims in parentheses): superiority (our award winning product), scientific (inspired by groundbreaking DNA research), performance (look more radiant), endorsement (dermatologist recommended), environmental (no animal testing) or subjective (all you need for all-day confidence).

Advertisement for a Fusion Beauty cosmetic. (www.ceftandcompany.com)
Three women having diverse backgrounds and being representative of the primary consumer population were selected to judge the claims. Each independently evaluated the claims according to the claim-type categorization, then each independently classified the claims as (examples in parentheses): vague/ambiguous (inspired by science), omission (product is clinically tested, omitting how and where), false/outright lie (product brings miracles to your skin) or acceptable.

The Levels of Ad Deception

In all, there were 757 claims from 289 ads. Most claims were for makeup (32%) skincare (29%) and hair product (26%), and most were categorized as scientific (30%), subjective (30%) and performance (24%).

There are different ways of looking at the results. Sadly, none leaves you with a warm and fuzzy about cosmetics advertising. Of the 757 claims, only 18% were judged to be acceptable, 59% were considered vague or dogged by omission, and 23% were thought to be false--yes, outright lies.

Going further, 46% of the superiority claims and 23% of the performance claims were judged false; only 14% of the scientific claims were deemed acceptable; a whopping 54% of endorsement claims were acceptable, yet 25% were categorized as omission; and you might as well give up on subjective claims, of which 96% were considered to be false or vague.

Wrap Up

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with enforcing the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA); however, its focus has been on the safety of cosmetics, not advertising claims. This becomes more of an issue with cosmeceuticals--cosmetics with biologically active ingredients that are professed to have medical or drug-like benefits.

Will the FDA will get more involved? Will cosmetics advertisers change? Wait! Do consumers read and trust advertising claims? Thanks for stopping by.


Cosmetics advertising study in Journal of Global Fashion Marketing and article on study on Science Daily website:

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