How do you sell beauty products, asks Lori Anderson. A quiet revolution is currently under way in the magazine industry
John Keats may have said: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, but then again the young 19th-century poet and laudanum addict had yet to meet a Madison Avenue advertising executive hell-bent on selling the masses Revlon “Cherries in the Snow” lipstick.
For in the hands of the recent band of Mad Men and their phalanx of photographers and graphic designers wielding their arcane wands of digital manipulation, beauty is not always quite what it seems. If asked to take a lie-detector test, those youthful images of platonic beauty would blush a perfect shade of crimson.
For years, the most beautiful models in the world have been deemed unworthy enough to appear on the pages of glossy magazines without first being passed through the photographic equivalent of a car wash, with every wrinkle and blemish airbrushed out and, on occasion, their breasts boosted up and their legs stretched out.
Yet a quiet revolution is currently under way, one in which the advertising image is little bit more honest. For as the September issues of the glossy magazines are hefted on to the news stands in preparation for the busiest, most lucrative part of the year, the four-month run-up to Christmas, a new advertising style has been unveiled, “flawsome”.
The term has been invented by Henry Mason of trendwatching.com, an agency that specialises in predicting future niche markets and advises clients how to benefit from them. As he recently told the Financial Times: “It’s about a desire for more human brands and greater transparency. In the current consumer climate of decreasing trust in business, it’s proving to be a winning strategy.”
If “flawsome” had a founder it would arguably be Dove, the British cosmetics company, which in 2004 ran a series of commercials that eschewed professional models for “real women” and which this season unveils a new “authentic face” in the form of Alexis Foreman, who was found standing outside a sausage shop in Brighton.
According to Ali Fisher, Dove’s marketing manager, the company is simply responding to the public’s wishes.She says: “We found that digitally manipulated images were the least effective method of encouraging the purchase of a beauty product.”
As she explained in a recent interview: “Dove does not enhance or add extra elements to an image, nor does it combine images to create a false representation of perfection.”
Where Dove led, others will now follow this season. The French cosmetics company Make Up For Ever launched its Invisible Cover Foundation product with what it described as “the first unretouched campaign”. Melvita, a French brand of eco-beauty products, recently launched in Britain with an advertising campaign that, again, used “real women” and banned the use of Photoshop to brush out blemishes, providing what its international marketing manager, Julien Laporte, insisted was “a strong emotional link with our consumer, a link of trust based on sincerity and honesty”.
What we are now seeing is a necessary corrective in the advertising industry. For too long it has been deceitful to women by digitally elongating a model’s legs, as if stretching her on a medieval rack and airbrushing out every crinkle and line or possible imperfection. Critics argue that repeatedly being shown an impossible ideal of beauty in magazine and television adverts is having a destructive effect on the current generation of women and has led to a rise in eating disorders and cosmetic surgery.
According to research, one in ten brides now has some form of cosmetic procedure, such as Botox, before her big day, while the introduction of FaceTime and Skype means some women are fretting over how they look while making these modern “phone calls” leading to an increase in what has been dubbed “the FaceTime Facelift”, a lower facelift that eradicates jowls and double chins.
Yet for all those women unhappily comparing themselves to an impossible ideal or embarking on drastic measures in an attempt to measure up, there is another set of women fighting back. Last month, two teenagers handed in a 28,000-signature petition to the offices of Teen Vogue in protest at airbrushed images, while in America there is a new vogue for what is called “mirror fasting”. Each day, the average woman is supposed to look at herself in the mirror 38 times. I hope that’s an exaggeration, but those who now eschew reflective surfaces entirely are reporting a new feeling of serenity and liberation.
The fact is, however, that there remains a degree of smoke and mirrors in all advertising campaigns and, frankly, we wouldn’t wish it any other way.
Some cosmetics companies are already moving away from the trend for “real women”. Rob Calcraft, the founder of Ren, which prides itself on avoiding all synthetic ingredients, recently released a video to celebrate its tenth anniversary which featured a couple, untouched-up, fooling around by a lake. They were not “real people”, but representatives of “possible aspiration” and – my favourite new term – “idealised normality”.
So where is balance to be found? For me, true beauty encompasses the supposed imperfections of fine lines, little bumps on noses and diastemata; after all, life itself is flawed, so why can’t accept a few? If one aims for homogenised perfection, which is often what is being offered in magazine adverts, one becomes a statue that looks beautiful from afar but has no substance, personality or soul.
But, then again, the present vogue for “real women” in advertising campaigns can also go too far. Two years ago Brigitte, a German women’s magazine, dropped skinny models from their glossy pages in favour of the wrinkles and double chins of ordinary women. The result was that subscriptions dropped by 22 per cent, sales by 33 per cent, and readers eventually admitted that they found the ordinariness of the models a distraction.
Last month, the publishers announced that their egalitarian experiment was over.
It is clear women don’t want random “girls next door”, they want to open a magazine and gaze upon idealised beauty – and although what constitutes beauty is often a matter of debate, we know it when we see it.
Adverts are another form of art, and just as we seek the most inspiring and aesthetically pleasing images for our walls, so do we seek to be elevated by the pixelated forms of sublimely beautiful digital hawkers. They are our modern caryatids, still, silent, there to be gazed upon while they support the crushing weight of our consumer society..