Editor's note: The "Words from Wiechers" series considers the lessons our industry can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was an adviser, colleague and leader in the industry until his passing in 2011. Presenting Wiechers's insights is Tony O'Lenick.
Chapter 13 of Wiechers’s book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, starts with a scrutinizing look at cosmetic advertisements.
“As some of you know, I occasionally give a course on cosmetic claims substantiation and, in order to keep this course actual, I regularly buy glossies like Elle, Vogue and Cosmopolitan to keep up to date with the latest cosmetic advertisements. Most of my reading time is spent on the first ten pages of these magazines, where the majority of the most impressive ads for prestige cosmetics can be found. But I also look at the rest of the publication, and when I compare cosmetic advertisements with those of the exquisite clothes, shoes and handbags that are also being advertised, it strikes me over and over again that cosmetic ads are rather unique.
"The latter are characterized by a large amount of text and I ask myself why all this prose is necessary. Perfumes are an exception to this; these ads hardly contain a word apart from the brand name. Perfumes, like the clothes, shoes and handbags, are sold on image, so why are the rest of cosmetic products sold on text? And, does it really work?
"I think that the answer to the first question lies in the way to create uniqueness. If I want my consumers to believe that my product hydrates skin better or gives hair more body than any other product, I should provide evidence thereof. But whilst the product’s impact on hair body can still be shown via the picture of a celebrity, [who] supposedly uses my product and certainly endorses my product as long as I send her the monthly check, such authentication is much more difficult with product efficacies like skin hydration.
'Perfumes, like the clothes, shoes and handbags, are sold on image, so why are the rest of cosmetic products sold on text?'
"But although the impressive reduction in the number of skin wrinkles due to the use of my latest anti-aging product should be easily visualized, you will never see the so-called “before” and “after” pictures in cosmetic advertisements. Could this be because we do not like to use less favorable visuals in cosmetic advertising?
"Rather than off-putting pictures (often also impossible because [what] celebrity wants to be shown in a “before" picture?), we use graphs, bars, and lines and text—lots of text—in cosmetic ads. And since a year or so ago, we also predominantly use the color white to enhance the clinical and scientific value of our products.
"But now, to impact. Do our customers really read the text? If I can take the people that have attended my courses as a typical audience—which of course they are not; being on the course already suggests them to be a lot more critical than the average consumer—then they do not read the text at all, even if you ask them to do so. And therefore, my second question: do all those phrases, tables and graphs do what they are supposed to do? In other words, what is the impact?"
Part of the problem in cosmetic advertising is the fact that the underlying science is generally beyond the ability of average consumers to grasp, leading to misinformation. I heard a medical doctor once speak against sodium lauryl ether sulfate because if "it has ether in it, it would likely put you to sleep." Our industry needs to debunk these misstatements. Some are doing it but this is an uphill battle. Once a raw material is scarred by misinformation it will likely not recover in the mind of the consumer.
See related: Comparatively Speaking; Matter vs. Mind Claims
Another aspect that applies to cosmetic advertisements is the fact that our consumers are purchasing a discretionary product that needs to deliver a benefit that goes beyond the basic performance attributes. The product should offer sensory and emotional experiences for the customer. Visual input is the fastest, most efficient method to deliver the image of a product and in turn, what the consumer should expect. Consumers will not read a long article to make a decision to purchase. Visuals are key. Wiechers was correct when he wrote this in 2002, and his observations are just as valid today; some 19 years ago.
Wiechers clearly points out that, “Cosmetic scientists and consumers are not convinced by stories, nor by graphs, nor by bar charts, but only by visuals.” He also emphasizes, "Whilst advertisements for most other products are trying to convey their message in quite a humorous manner, cosmetic ads seem to have a monopoly on boredom."
I am not sure humor would be a good addition to cosmetic advertisements, though. This would detract from the serious, sophisticated message consumers need upon their short visual inspection of the ad.