Can cosmetics brands make honesty their USP?

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands in the news. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.


Reading the Committee of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) new guidelines on advertising cosmetics released this week is almost like the “No Sh*t Sherlock Press Release from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious” that appears in the Metro every day, highlighting little known facts, such as regular exercise and reducing your food intake helps you lose weight.

The CAP’s helpfully titled “help note” contains guidelines for practices that are likely to mislead: using before and after images where the after image uses pre-production techniques, using lash inserts that are bigger than a model’s natural lashes when advertising mascara, reducing lines and wrinkles on a model’s face when advertising face cream, and the excessive use of hair extensions when advertising haircare products.

Makes sense to me. People get found out every day for lying on their CVs. And contrary to what some may believe, esteemed journalists such as myself don’t try and pass off the novel chapters we secretly write at night as factual quotes for the articles we write in our day jobs. So why should the beauty industry be allowed to sell their products under such blatant pretences?

Sadly though, I can see the likes of L’Oreal, Avon, Rimmel, Olay, Body Shop and Johnson and Johnson all banging their heads on their desks after receiving the email, as these are the very practices they have all at one point or another been named and shamed for by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

But who can blame these brands for trying their luck, when the ASA’s treatment of such tactics has been inconsistent to say the least. While in 2007 L’Oreal was banned for using lash inserts for a campaign featuring actress Penelope Cruz, it was cleared when similar complaints were raised in May 2010, this time around lash inserts used on actress Freida Pinto. L’Oreal’s narrow escape revolved around a defence that the lash inserts were not bigger than Pinto’s own lashes. Why use them then?!

Reading the Committee of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) new guidelines on advertising cosmetics released this week is almost like the “No Sh*t Sherlock Press Release from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious”

Meanwhile, in December 2009, the ASA also rejected complaints against L’Oreal’s use of hair extensions on singer Cheryl Cole as she paraded around celebrating her hair’s new found mojo. Again, the ASA meekly let L’Oreal walk away laughing, as the brand had cleverly squeezed some teeny weeny writing in at the bottom of the ad as a disclaimer against the extensions.

Neither of these poorly conducted rulings change the fact that neither L’Oreal’s mascara nor shampoo will make my humble lashes or hair look as big as the model’s do on the screen. Now, I don’t expect to magically be transformed into Penelope Cruz – if only – but to achieve the results portrayed in the ads is nigh on impossible given the conditions these brands have often been allowed to present their products in.

So what are these brands to do now? Actually rely on the effectiveness of their products? Surely not.

Or maybe they will watch and learn as new cosmetic brands emerge with selling honestly being their USP. It might sound ridiculous, but it seems to be working, given the track record of its more established rivals.

French brand Make Up For Ever’s new High Definition foundation is grabbing headlines all over the fashion world for its claims that it is the first make up brand to refrain from retouching its models in its advertising. So far it is getting the thumbs up from fashionistas, make up artists and consumers.

Let’s hope Make Up For Ever now doesn’t come under fire from the ASA for lying about not retouching. That would really take the cake.

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