The Advertising Standards Agency in the UK is getting tough on cosmetic claims in light of a rise in complaints relating to  beauty product promotion.  The use of air-brushing  in beauty advertising is coming under fire as is the over-ambitious claims made by some product manufacturers.   Horray we all shout as there is nothing worse than that empty feeling of having been taken for a ride whilst simultaneously relieved of a few quid but it does beg the question, what should we expect from beauty ads?

Beauty Photography. What you see isn't always what you get

The principles of the ASA are that all adverts should be legal, honest, decent and truthful which seems fair enough really so where is the beauty industry going wrong?

Air-brushing Adverts.

We accept that those food pics in our recipe books, magazines and fast food adverts are 100% staged but we have begun to feel increasingly cheated when people are less than 100% authentic.

Is this realistic?  

 I would never think to complain about a pore-less, mono-toned, wrinkle-free and probably airbrushed model selling me lipstick from a magazine page. However,  I would feel rather duped if the ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo’s on a miracle wrinkle lift product had been digitally doctored.  I think that is fair as most lipsticks are bought for their colour, staying power and lip feel, price and brand whereas my wrinkle cream is there to get under the skin. If a product is going to alter our naked skin we need to be able to measure its effect fairly and openly. Air-brushing is clearly cheating in this case.

Based on this rational I would expect that for a cosmaceutical ad to be authentic, honest and truthful it should be sold on unadulterated visual evidence. We want to see what it, not photo shop can do!

Hope-in-a-bottle claims.

Cosmetics have been getting under our skin for quite a while now, we call them cosmaceuticals and some people have even started to call them cosmedicines. Whatever!  Anyway, there is a growing army of products that promise to send their little magic bullets right into the skin in order to affect our beauty cells – (those producing collagen, elastin, immune responses etc).  These scientrific products come with a wide range of claims attached ranging from firming, plumping, hydrating, nourishing, protecting, stimulating and modulating. It all sounds very biological to me, but where do these claims come from?

Currently only a minority of brands would put their formulations through extensive panel testing in order to back up their claims. SHOCKING???  Not really you see it has long been the ingredient manufacturer who carries out these tests on basic or ‘starter’ formulations in order to gain themselves a market position. Brand owners (especially the smaller ones) just don’t have the time or money to run endless tests on their specific formulation and so they rely on what the ingredient manufacturers tell them and often use this evidence to back up their claims. 

This practice is not totally useless as it is quite possible for a well-trained cosmetic chemist to formulate a great product based on what the ingredient manufacturers have said.  Cosmetic Chemists also use their knowledge of the area to look for ingredients that would work well together and ingredients that would render each other inactive.  They also spend a lot of time building a base that can help deliver actives to their target site.  Practically all brand owners test the efficacy of their formulations in some shape or form – often on staff or friends if the budget is small but it looks like this is all going to change as the stakes get higher.

Toughening up on beauty claims may have a number of knock on effects including:

  • Cosmaceuticals get more expensive as the brand owners seek to recoup the costs of substantiating their claims. 
  • Some brands get squeezed out due to their inability to substantiate their key claims.
  • Cosmaceuticals stop promising things that they can’t deliver.

On the face of it this toughening of the law sounds and looks like a great thing and for those with deep pockets and a great product it will prove useful. However,  this law change isn’t without its casualties.  Smaller brand owners who have invested in the best cutting-edge technology may be priced out of the market because they can’t afford the testing required to back up their desired claims. Alternatively they may choose to under-sell their brand which is good or those consumers who get wind of this quiet miracle but not so good for brand investors looking for big sales.   Secondly there is the very real problem of lack of standardisation in testing methods for cosmaceutical claims. There are lots of labs offering good test protocols and producing excellent evidence to support claims but there are others that are not quite so rigorous. How is this going to be managed?  This fact could see legitimate and honest players dissadvantaged as the best labs and most robust tests do not come cheap.  Finally there is the bazaar thought that brands may actually stop selling things that they can’t deliver.  We would all have to say that that sounds like a good plan but hang on a moment. What works on one person won’t always work on another so if there is no standard test protocol how do we actually police this?

Stop and Think. What's in this for me?

Getting tough on beauty advertising has to be a good thing especially after such a steep rise in complaints but it isn’t going to solve everything. As our expectations and willingness to invest in our jar of hope rises so does our risk of disappointment. Maybe we all need to take a step back and look at what it is that we are really buying as there isn’t a cream in the world that will make you beautiful if you don’t believe and trust yourself.