Words from Wiechers: The Power of Suggestion

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: The "Words from Wiechers" series considers the many lessons we, as an industry, can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was an advisor, colleague, insightful leader and "disruptive force" (in a good way) in the industry until his unexpected passing. Presenting Wiechers's insights is IFSCC Education Chair, Anthony J. O'Lenick, Jr.

In this edition of our "Words from Wiechers" series, Johann wrestles with the basic difference between cosmetic and drug functions. Cosmetics are used to affect the appearance while drugs treat and diagnose diseases. These fundamental differences establish expectations in different products.

Drugs and cosmetics do fundamentally different things and consumers of these products have not only a right to expect different benefits, but an obligation to expect different benefits from their use. If an antibiotic only treated the appearance of the infection, the consumer would be quite right to be upset. The consumer of a cosmetic product should therefore expect cosmetic effects (i.e., appearance alteration) and not drug benefits.

Chapter 31 from his bookMemories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, begins with the following observation: “There are many people that do not believe at all in products. But there are also people that sincerely do.”

This reminds me of a time when, as a young chemist, I visited a customer who asked me if I believed in faith healing. I was slow to answer—not expecting a technical sales call to have such a discussion. My older sales representative answered: “Works for some and not for others.” A very wise but quite meaningless answer.

Johann states: "One part of the general public thinks that cosmetics are nothing but hope in a bottle, whereas the other part cannot imagine a single day of their lives without them."

Consumers who receive messaging suggesting their cosmetic product does work are also much more convinced the product they use does, indeed, work.

Power of Belief

Wiechers writes: In 2005, an article by Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening was featured in the British Journal of Psychology. It was entitled, “It’s still bending: Verbal Suggestion and Alleged Psychokinetic Ability." In this paper, the authors explain the importance of suggestion on our perception of reality. Imagine Uri Geller has just been bending a spoon he held in his hand by thought alone (a process known in the psychology field as psychokinecticmetal bending, or PKMB). He then puts it down on the table and says, “Look, it is still bending!” and, as if by magic, many spectators really see it continue to bend. But is this evidence of genuine psychic ability or not?

The authors devised a clever video experiment that investigated this phenomenon, combined with questionnaires to assess whether the subjects believed in the paranormal or not. The video every subject saw was the same, showing an interviewer (who in reality was a professional magician) picking up a key and apparently using his psychokinetic ability in a convincing way to place a 25-degree bend in its stem (in reality this bend was achieved by sleight of hand).

The interviewer then placed the key back on the table and the videotape ended with a 60-sec close-up shot of the bent key. This shot was completely stationary and the key did not continue to bend. The soundtracks of the tape, however, were different. Half the number of subjects was told by the interviewer that the key continued to bend whereas the others were not. In questionnaires, they were subsequently asked whether they saw the key still bending and how certain they were of what they saw. They were also asked to describe in detail the content of the video.

The outcome was unexpected. Whether or not the subjects believed in the paranormal had no influence on whether or not they saw the key still bending. However, a significantly larger portion of the subjects who were told the key was still bending (39%) actually saw it bending; and they were all pretty sure about it.

Strangely enough, most of these subjects hardly remembered being told it was still bending (12.5%), whereas those that did not see the key still bending remembered being told it would do so (75%). Most of the subjects that were not told the key was still bending also did not see this (96%); but they were less sure about it than the people in the other group. Since they did not receive the suggestion of the continued bending, they also did not report this when describing the content of the video.

The product that is most successful delivers to the consumer the benefit claimed on the label. It makes no difference whether that satisfaction is delivered by a physical or emotional process.

Cosmetic Application

As usual, readers would now ask what this all has to do with cosmetic science? I (Wiechers) described above that there are many people that do not believe at all in the efficacy of cosmetic products. But there are also people that sincerely do. This, you can compare to those that do not and those that do believe in the paranormal, respectively. It does not seem to make any difference from your perception whether a product works or not. But the work of Wiseman and Greening does point out the importance of verbal messages in advertising.

You can show clinical photographs of the efficacy of a cosmetic product (the initial bending of the key) but being told that it works during or after being shown the evidence (the PKMB after-effect) will positively influence the perception of product efficacy. Not only that, consumers who are receiving the verbal message suggesting their cosmetic product does work are also much more convinced the product they use does, indeed, work. It works like magic!

The Lesson

This revelation and the application of Johann’s experience to cosmetic science help explain why advertising and the establishment of consumer expectations prior to use are so important to the successful marketing of cosmetics. The product that is most successful delivers to the consumer the benefit claimed on the label. It makes no difference whether that customer satisfaction is delivered by a physical, emotional or psychological process; if the customer is satisfied, the product is successful.

Cosmetics, unlike drugs, are not used to diagnose or treat a disease, but to improve appearance and satisfy consumers. Consumer products therefore should be judged by, and claims evaluated by, what is actually delivered since there is, indeed, some magic in what we do.

Mark Chandler, a long-time colleague and friend of Wiechers' at ICI/Uniqema/Croda, who is also carrying on Wiechers' legacy with the Formulating for Efficacy software adds the following.

"Many do not realize that Johann did a lot of work on the sensory side, less from the emotional standpoint, but more from a scientific quantification perspective. He realized the power of the tactile properties of a skin care product, particularly the initial appearance, pick-up and rub-out, in connecting with a target audience. Connecting on that level then can lead to a positive disposition for a product, which then can help the consumer believe the product works."

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