Looking at Beauty Products Makes You Feel Bad, (Maybe) Buy More

Sephora rainbow display

At least, that’s the conclusion drawn by this study, as reported in the New York Times‘ Sunday Styles this week.

From the official write-up (emphasis mine):

The authors conducted four experiments to examine the different meanings
consumers gleaned from products that were advertised versus not advertised. In
one study, the authors exposed female study participants to either a beauty-
enhancing product (eye shadow, perfume) or a problem-solving product (acne
concealer, deodorant).The product was either embedded in an advertisement (with
a shiny background and a fake brand name) or it was depicted against a neutral
white background. “After exposure to the advertised beauty-enhancing products
consumers were more likely to think about themselves than when they viewed the
same products outside of their advertisements.”

What’s more, those advertisements affected how consumers thought about
themselves. “After viewing an advertisement featuring an enhancing product
consumers evaluated themselves less positively than after seeing these products when they appeared without the advertising context,” the authors write. The same effect did not show up when the items were problem-solving products.

Important note: None of the ads in the study featured humans — they were just straight-up product shots. Which means we “compare” ourselves to ads for lipstick and perfume in much the same way we compare ourselves to pictures of skinny, airbrushed models and celebrities.

This is pretty fascinating, peeps. So buckle up.

The study authors think it’s because seeing pictures of beauty-enhancing products remind us of our own shortcomings — you don’t smell that pretty without the expensive perfume, plus maybe you can’t afford the expensive perfume, and now you’re feeling smelly and poor. (Heck, probably fat, too. Just ’cause.) But I think it’s interesting that study participants didn’t feel bad when they looked at the problem-solving products (acne concealers, wrinkle creams, deodorant) which you’d expect to really remind you of the fact that you’ve, well, got a “problem.”

Maybe it’s because the problem-solvers offer solutions. So you’re walking around feeling bad about your acne or your wrinkles all the time, and then, hey presto! You spot something that seems like a miracle cure and feel instantly cheerier.

But maybe, too, it’s because even without seeing the perfect, airbrushed model, the beauty-enhancers remind you of that standard. I’d love to look at lots of eye shadows and lip glosses and just think ooh, pretty! Sometimes I do, like when I’m wandering around all those shimmery palettes in Sephora that look good enough to eat with a spoon. And then, sometimes, I look at all that stuff and think “oh my God, there are not enough hours in the day.” Because, as we talk about all the time here, it takes work to achieve any part of our beauty standard day in, day out. And looking at the pretty products on a day when you didn’t bother to wear makeup is sort of like why I feel the need to hide my laptop at the weekend. Work/life boundaries are important. Everyone deserves a day off. 

Plus, let’s not forget the luxe price tag that usually accompanies these luxe beauty enhancers. (The NYT chose to art their piece with a Chanel No 5 ad, in case you weren’t clear on that point.) It is not fun, particularly in a recession, particularly when we’re all feeling the need to cut back and be more mindful about our spending, to feel pressured to look a certain way and spend a certain amount of money to get there. And when you look at so many ads, day in, day out, on the internet or TV, or in magazines, you can start to feel like you’re never measuring up.

I’m not saying we’re all not smart enough to divorce ourselves from that pressure and say, heck, I’d rather spend my discretionary funds on a nice dinner out with friends or by donating to charity. We all make those choices all the time and good on us. But in that moment of seeing the ad — for me, it’s paging through the 97,000 J.Crew catalogs that arrive at my house every week and looking at piles of pretty cashmere sweaters and socks and, oh lordy, these boots — you can, even for just a few minutes, start to feel sort of schlubby. And highly aware that the battered old lip gloss floating around your purse doesn’t ever quite deliver the shimmer you want, or that the socks you’re wearing are approximately six years old and are starting to get those little holes along the seam.

And wouldn’t it be nice, if $500 or whatever, just fell out of the sky and you could race around Sephora and J. Crew and stock up on all of these beauty-enhancing items and then just breathe a sigh of relief because you would be set. You’d measure up, everything would fit and look right and be shiny and new and life would be sweet.

Until you saw the next round of advertisements and catalogs, of course.

[Rainbow Sephora display is IMG_0265 from chickenscrawl/Cheng-Yee T‘s photostream via Flickr’s Creative Commons pool.]



Filed under Beauty Labor, products

4 responses to “Looking at Beauty Products Makes You Feel Bad, (Maybe) Buy More

  1. Jade

    Spot on! Half of the time I love my magazines and the other half of the time, I despise them for making me feel poor, inadequate and schlubby. Sometimes I convince myself that after I spend $84 on a Guerlain eyeshadow palette, I’ll never buy eyeshadow again. Then I’ll open a mag and see a Dior eyeshadow palette I must have…

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. Rebecca

    Oh, those J. Crew catalogs.
    On the one hand, they’re so pleasant to look at and really well-done. On the other hand, they are pretty depressing.
    They’re not just selling clothes, they’re selling a life.
    Like, not only do I have to buy all the clothes, but go sailing with my tanned, thin, sandy-haired son and daughter, our golden retriever, and my unbelievably handsome husband who mixes drinks while I laugh charmingly and the children amuse themselves.
    Even if the entire contents of the J. Crew warehouse showed up on my doorstep, and even if those clothes looked right on my body type, I would never measure up to the J. Crew catalog. Sigh.
    Although, in my heart of hearts, I do wonder if all of those fictional people would be pretty boring to hang out with in real life. Not a lot going on behind the eyes there, sometimes. Kind of vapid, not too thoughtful or witty.
    And this is what my brain spends its time on instead of finding a cure for cancer . . .

  3. Rebecca

    You’ve kept me thinking for a while now about why the difference between the ‘beauty-enhancing’ and ‘problem-solving’ products.
    I wonder if it’s because with problem-solving products, you have to honestly evaluate yourself (I’ve got acne, I should use a cream on that) whereas with the beauty-enhancing products, it’s so amorphous and never-ending: exactly what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to look more fun, more sexy, perfect smoky eyes? It’s pretty hard to put deodorant on wrong. If the acne cream doesn’t work, I conclude it’s not a good or strong enough acne cream. If the eye-shadow doesn’t make me look alluring. Maybe it’s me.

    • Ooh, Rebecca, great point. The “beauty-enhancing” goals are so much vaguer (because we’re always raising that bar) so your odds of achieving it are much slimmer.

      There’s also the skill level involved in something like eye shadow — I know, before Beauty U, I had a knee-jerk “no way” reaction to products like those because I didn’t have the first clue how to use them and was convinced I’d end up looking foolish. Not alluring.

      The study authors’ next step is to research how these negative feelings influence buying decisions — I am curious to see what they find, because on the one hand, I can absolutely see why you would step away from the eye shadow when you don’t know how to apply it, but on the other hand, we’ll buy an awful lot of stuff when we’re full-on chasing that beauty dragon…

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