Wednesday, 29 May 2013

"Hello, Ugly." That's What They're Saying (editorial)

  • Each American is likely to view 3000 adverts of different kinds every single day
  • They present a stereotyped view of what it means to be a worthwhile person, and,  Kilbourne argues, they manipulate us by presenting the “ultimate standard of worth, so that women are judged against this standard whether [they] like it or not."
  • Discover the tricks advertisers use to sell you products, and read about the problems these techniques might cause you

"Hello, Ugly." 

That's what they're saying--some of the adverts in glossy magazines. We trust these brands with our looks and our self-esteem and we give them our money. Don't we deserve to not only look good but feel good, too? In a short editorial last year I outlined some of the sales tricks used in department stores and beauty exhibitions and that is all very useful because it shows us how to be savvy beauty consumers. But its power is limited only to the beauty hall; there's a power greater than that, and that's the adverts in glossy magazines. These adverts aren't passively sitting there waiting for us to either look at them or turn the page. Their power is phenomenal. In this editorial I want to discuss why they can be a bad thing - a really bad thing - and how they have the power to pretend they're our best friend when in reality they are our worst enemy. 

Jean Kilbourne, in her book Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, highlights the sobering statistic that each American is likely to view 3000 adverts of different kinds every single day. She argues that many of the advertisements focus not on the benefit of the product but instead the lifestyle that's supposedly bundled in with it: Buy this product and you'll be loved, they'll say. Buy this product and it'll love you. 

These adverts aren't passively hiding between magazine articles waiting for us to flick the page if we so choose, because in fact they inform, persuade, and manipulate in their own ways. They present a stereotyped view of what it means to be a worthwhile person, and,  Kilbourne argues, they manipulate us by presenting the “ultimate standard of worth, so that women are judged against this standard whether [they] like it or not."

A 2013 paper by Kaur, Arumugam and Mohamad Yunus entitled Beauty Product Advertisements: A Critical Discourse Analysis argues that one reason that these advertisements are so effective is because they initially lower a person's self-esteem and, while the reader is feeling down, they provide a solution to that negative feeling: buy the product. It is the ultimate manipulation. 

In order to discover how beauty advertisements work, Kaur, Arumugam and Mohamad Yunus studied beauty advertisements that appeared in two magazines published in the United Kingdom; Cleo, and Women's Weekly. They discovered several tricks that the advertisers use to get us to manipulate us into purchasing their products. Some of these tricks follow.

This image is perhaps typical of what
 you might expect to see in a beauty
advertisement. Newsflash:
 Somebody forget to tell the advertisers
that there's more than one
way to look good. © konradbak
The advert might first aim to focus on a 'problem' that they'll hint needs to be fixed. They might talk about 'unsightly under-eye bags', or 'dull, lifeless skin', or 'ageing skin', or they might create new problems completely, such as some have done with skin-whitening products. They might seek to reduce self-esteem by presenting something that we might not have previously considered: Clinique, in a recent advertisement, wrote, "The Clinique Lash Power Mascara was created to meet the needs of barely-there Asian eyelashes." In doing so the advertisers want to bring to our conscious attention that these things are (supposedly) flaws that need to be fixed. They want to invoke and bring to the fore their readers' inadequacies. It is as if we must all look the same; with our thick eyelashes, whitened skin. There's no space to wonder whether individuality might be Queen; what looks good on another might not suit us. 

It is often these brands and their adverts that tell us what we should look like. While under-eye bags might be genetic for some of us, and, in fact, sometimes a normal part of everyday life, they are presented as something we should feel bad about. They are equated with unhealthiness, tiredness, lethargy and a lonely life. Another example is how teenagers are flooded with advertisements that seek to demonstrate that the characters within them are only successful in finding relationships when their skin is clear and blemish-free. But it isn't just 'problems' such as spots that these brands set their sights upon. 

A fashion brand might send out its runway models with a new hairstyle or colour of cosmetic. Fashion editors take note and soon these models' fashions and cosmetic choices are seen in all of the highstreet retailers and even lifestyle magazines. They are seen in television shows and soap operas and music videos. These things become the new normal. They pop up in adverts for lawnmowers or yoghurts. And, of course, these fashions and cosmetics are available to purchase at a premium price from the respective retail and cosmetic product arms of the company that originally sent out the runway models. These adverts are deeply ingrained in society and can affect people who haven't even seen the original runway show and the adverts in magazines that it has spawned. They might be harmless enough if the product is, say, a new shade of blue eyeliner, but might become more sinister if it is a product that is aimed at changing skin colour. 

What else might these adverts do? They might use celebrity endorsements knowing that we're likely to trust the judgement of somebody we see on our television screens each day. They might use psycho-babble and nonsense scientific language to make us think that the studies they have conducted into their products' efficacy is reliable and telling. There will be language puffery that's exaggerated and unreal, such as Estee Lauder's claim that Advanced Night Repair is "the one revolutionary formula millions of women can’t live without." These claims might be enshrouded in emotion-inducing words such as "exclusive", "mesmerising", "glamorous". But, most of all, they'll pit the reader against his or her nemesis: A super-attractive model chosen to force us to compare ourselves against. Except, the model will usually win, because he or she has photo-manipulation as a back-up weapon. How are we ever to look this good? Simple: Purchase the product that's being advertised. It is the ultimate trick because it is making us feel bad about ourselves and then presenting the brand as our saviour. 

But the brand is not our friend. It is anything but. 

Where does this leave us? Not all advertisers use these methods. I suggest this: if you like using products by a brand that uses these methods, write to them and tell them what you think of their techniques. They might become better. Most of all, though, when you're choosing a new product, choose it because it does something or solves a problem you - and not they - have identified. Otherwise, it isn't something that you need. There is more than one way to look good. 


Kaur, K., Arumagam, N., and Mohamad Yunus, N. (2013) Beauty Product Advertisements: A Critical Discourse Analysis. Canadian Centre of Science and Eucation, Canada. 
Kilbourne, J. (1995). Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. The Free Press, New York.


  1. This reminds me of a segment on the Colbert Report where Stephen Colbert talked about Unilever's Dove brand not being content to just sell women stuff for the problems we already know we have, but generously pointing out problems we didn't even know existed!

    I actually fell for this a couple of years back and bought Dove's Go Sleeveless deodorant stick, which promised to "help replenish delicate underarm skin—leaving it softer, smoother and ready to reveal in just five days". You could imagine my surprise when my armpits looked the same on day 5 as they did on day 1.

  2. Ah! I hadn't heard of this, but yes, that's exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of! Well found!