There is a trifecta of human fears and “solutions” that have seldom waned over time. Think: Dieting. Aging. Hair loss. Miracle elixirs are packaged and purchased by buyers filled with hope throughout the ages. Thanks to our seemingly unlimited, uncontrollable emotional insecurity, these product claims remain the largest, most egregious and under-challenged of marketing practices in the U.S., yet they are still around because they squeak by government regulations or lack thereof.
I have become fascinated in particular with cosmetics claims that have gone over-the-top in the age of faux fillers, collagen, the rise of cosmeseuticals and pseudo-science. Admittedly, my own vanity can fall prey, even with the best of intentions to be a smart consumer — but who can resist the words “erase” or “wrinkle-free” without dropping some bucks on it. As part consumer and part observer of these outrageous promises, I too have been a victim of wasted creams, potions and lotions. Yes, I too sought Hope in a Jar.
Aimed squarely at women and tapping into society’s youth-obsessed culture, beauty claims on cosmetics packaging tend to fall into two types of categories*: emotional (women saw fewer marked crows feet in a week) and numerical (99% of women said they saw a smoother appearance in 3 days).
Most all cosmetics packaging and advertising share a love for the asterisk symbol — that’s where the manufacturer can offer a vague, generally useless explanation of the claim (e.g.: “in women 30-40″, “in a clinical study”, “most respondents said”). Generally speaking, the explanation doesn’t add any value or understanding to the claim. It’s their attempt at showing some modicum of scientific evidence. More examples here.
Let’s look at some of the drugstore brands:
- The RevitaLift line from L’Oréal promises to remove wrinkles, using terms like “double lifting” (not just single) and “clinically proven to reduce the appearance of wrinkles*. Their Pro-Retinol patented product even has a scientific-looking animation on the L’Oréal website showing how wrinkles will disappear.
- Youth Code, another L’Oréal product, uses the double meanings to elicit a subtle nod to being linked with actual DNA and not-so-subtle promise that you’ll get in the “youth club”.
- The ROC skin care line offers to “look 10 years younger*.” Bring on the asterisk: *”on average 10 years back to the look of your skin is based on diminished appearance of wrinkles after 12 weeks use in clinical testing.”
- The Age Rewind makeup line from Maybelline devotes an entire website page with call-outs on a model’s face: “Erase crows feet! Erase fine lines! Erase age spots!” Covering up is more like it (not to mention airbrushing on the model). Saying you are going to erase something sounds permanent to me.
- Revlon’s Age-Defying with DNA Advantage makeup implies some sort of genetic enhancement after using this product. They claim it “protects skin’s DNA” and here comes the quantitative claim: ”96% of women saw flawless, younger-looking skin in two weeks.”
Department store brands are no better and in fact probably fool more people since the products are more expensive.
- Lancôme‘s products like Genifique Youth Activating Serum boasts: “Our first skin-care that boosts the activity of genes1 and stimulates the production of youth proteins2.” Genes refers to “in-vitro gene testing” (sounds scary). It’s hard to believe in-vitro, genes and “youth proteins” are listed on packaging for a moisturizer, not a drug.
- Clinique has many references to returning to youth in their product naming, even offering a category on their website called “De-Aging”. One of the products is called Youth Surge Decelerating Moisturizer. Yes, you will literally be turning back the hands of time thanks to Clinique chemistry.
Many products on the market hint that Botox is an ingredient but don’t actually contain it: Anew Clinical Deep Crease Concentrate with Bo-Hylurox; Botopical Instant Wrinkle Eraser; Lancôme’s Dermo-Expertise Wrinkle De-Crease Daily Smoothing Serum with Boswelox (this is from boswellia extract and manganese); and their Absolute Ultimate BX.
Similarly, many products advertise as an alternative to plastic surgery — the boldest of moves — using terminology like “collagen”, “fillers” and “laser”. Take Phytocell Tec Erase Wrinkles Firm Facelift in a Jar for Sagging Jowls, which contains the ingredients Relistanse and Serilestine with keratinocytes and fibroblasts. How’s that for gobbledy-gook terminology? Or the more strangely named Cosmetic Surgeon in a Jar line. I’m picturing a little doctor in there with a scalpel.
After reading these names and claims, you might wonder… how do cosmetics companies get away with this when we know full well it’s merely marketing? Answer: it’s complicated. Cosmetics are indeed regulated, both by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but for different areas of violations. The Federal Drug Administration focuses on the “serious” side of cosmetics, like drug claims, additives, factory conditions, while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) focuses on advertising and marketing practices for a host of industries — and that’s part of the problem. Cosmetics is not life and death so therefore falls to the middle or bottom of the complaint pile, even though product claims defy human belief and lack hard evidence.
I spoke to Evan Rose, Western Region Attorney for the FTC and lead attorney on the Nivea My Silhouette case last year, when Nivea settled with the FTC on a claim that their slimming cream could help you lose weight and even get you into your old pair of jeans. “We focus on cases where there are objective, verifiable claims,” Rose said. “A lot of cosmetics claims are ‘squishy’ and subjective like using the word ‘appearance’, ‘pretty’ and ‘feel the difference’.” Unlike drugs, cosmetic companies do not require pre-approval of ingredients or claims to their products, so the onus is on the consumer to find and report labeling issues. Rose freely admitted the FTC prioritizes more “serious” areas like health and safety and real estate scams, as opposed to cosmetic products that claim to make you beautiful.
“You want to believe this stuff is true so they find your weakness whether it’s weight loss, hair loss or aging,” said Rose. “There is no substitute for being a good consumer, and it helps to be skeptical.” He noted the other methods to crack down on these practices, such as filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or with your local State Attorney’s office, or going directly to the company. But Rose also said that doing so won’t necessarily put a stop to bogus claims.
Let’s face it, the psychology behind why we buy these products is simple: We want to believe, no matter how ridiculous the claim. Whether it’s losing 10 pounds in a week with a juice diet, using a new hair growth solution that works overnight, or a skin cream promising to erase all crows feet. We’re smitten before we even try it. Even more strangely, we know on some level these products probably won’t live up to their promise even as we’re handing over our money. But we still hope and tell ourselves that we’re doing something about our “problem”.
Without iron-clad laws in place to address the “squishy” language of cosmetics, it is up to us as consumers to lower our expectations altogether apparently. Remember “Caveat Emptor”— buyer beware — began in ancient Rome; that is how old false claims are. Or maybe the best solution is to read the labeling, enjoy a good chuckle and add to our laugh lines.
* My Asterisk really means something in this blog (but not scientific). Alisa Marie Beyer, “The Claim Game”, Global Cosmetic Industry, December 2010