By Doris Montanera
You have to admire British wit. Only in the United Kingdom would you find a TV ad for a wrinkle cream that admits there’s no proof the stuff works.The product was L’Oreal’s Wrinkle De-Crease. The company launched it a couple of years ago, touting a study that claimed 76% of women who tried it reported a visible reduction in their expression lines. It said its active ingredient, Boswelox, counteracts skin micro-contractions and could rapidly reduce wrinkles.
If you’re not distracted by images of spokesmodel Claudia Schiffer mugging for the camera, you might notice the disclaimer: The results apply only to isolated skin tissue in lab tests.
Wrinkle De-Crease is not, by any means, the only- or biggest – offender, just a highly publicized one, a result of stringent U.K. advertising regulations.
It seems dewy-faced models and celebrities aren’t enough to sell anti-ageing products any more: In recent years science has replaced sex. The cosmetic counters are stacked with lab-like pseudoceuticals filled with ingredients you can’t pronounce, let alone spell, and accompanied by booklets laced with jargon, colour coded pie charts and improvement graphs that make big claims about their clinical trials. They sound impressive, but the underlying science is nebulous.
“It’s almost comical that beauty companies can get away with marketing products the way they do,” says Dr. Lisa Kellett, a Toronto dermatologist. “I find it insulting to women.”
But it’s no wonder these companies feel compelled to exaggerate the wonders of their products. There’s a lot of money involved. Euromonitor, a market-research firm, reports that anti-agers were the fastest growing segment in the beauty industry in 2005 and predicts that Canadian retail sales will rise to $225-million by the end of 2010 up from $159-million in 2005.
But let’s get this straight right off the top: Once you hit your 20’s, there’s no such thing as anti-ageing. If there were, prune faces would be so last century. All anyone can do is try to slow the effects, and that’s what cosmetic companies are banking on: that elusive hope in a jar.
The claims companies make may sound scientific if you don’t have a science background. But it’s all about what you read into them. What words were chosen and what do they mean? Most take subjective claims and make them sound empirical. Gather your girlfriends and poll them about what beauty products they like. Draw a graph with your Microsoft Office software. It’s almost the same thing.
“You have to understand the data,” says Dr. Ana Rossi, the medical director of dermatology and esthetic dermatology at Johnson & Johnson in France. “It can be less reassuring and robust depending on which studies have been conducted. There are different levels of evidence, and the lowest is expert or personal opinion such as ‘XX% of women said.’” That’s the one cosmetic companies use most.
The best scientific evidence comes from randomized double-blind studies, which include expert evaluation and objective measurements. But those are time-consuming and can cost from $50,000 to $100,000. Compare that to opinion studies, which can cost as little as $2,000, including the product giveaways to participants.
“Even if you do a proper study, what sounds better?” Rossi says. “80% say they had improvement, or 15% demonstrated improvement versus the placebo? The 15% is the better number, but the 80% has more impact.” Its all about the wow factor.
That’s one of the things that irks self-proclaimed cosmetic cop Paula Begoun. The author of Don’t go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me points to a study conducted on a handheld microdermabrasion machine. She questions whether a washcloth would get the same results as the $200 contraption, something the study didn’t address.
The beauty industry is second only to politics in the art of spin doctoring. Directness is the shortest distance between two points but, as marketers know, it’s not the quickest way to the cash register.
“It’s the job of marketers to make it sound sexy,” says Manuela Marcheggiani, co-founder of Isomers Laboratories in Toronto. “If you say you have physiological changed skin, then your cosmetic becomes a drug and the government has higher standards for that.”
Once in a while, brands get caught out with their claims. Naughty StriVectin got slapped on the wrist for saying it worked better than Botox. “Health Canada made them stop, but they had the ad out for about a year,” says David Lackie, editor of Cosmetics, and industry trade publication.
In it’s January issue, Consumer Reports ranked anti-ageing creams. It found the products smoothed out some find lines and wrinkles by an average of 10%. That’s barely visible to the naked eye.
Face it: The majority of claims made by the beauty industry aren’t outright lies. The words on cosmetic products are all about making the most of what might be very little.