In this month’s column we take a look at the challenges faced when the use of figurative language in cosmetic claims easily leads to non-compliance and misinformation.
In order for cosmetic brands to sell their products, a believable, truthful, evidenced-based, honest, fair, and understandable story is required. In language terms, literal. Getting ahead of the com- petition demands some creative use of figurative (non-literal) language such as: metaphor, personification, similes, or at the extreme, using hyperbole. However, even figurative language has to be honest, polite and even “attractive”, if the advertiser either through pack copy, or various media formats, aims to capture and persuade the consumer to part with their money. Moreover, and in some instances, advertising language has gone as far as to change societal norms1. This only works if the brand engaged in the advertising has purpose, genuine authenticity, commitment, and of course is coherent in its messaging.
Yet, problems arise when the use of non-literal language is mis- understood and suddenly becomes “literal” in appearance, and we see this creeping quite steadily today in many cosmetics. This results in claims being justifiably challenged. A brand making the claim “contains no nasties” would be challenged, because it is clear the brand deliberately wanted to say, “non-toxic” (which is banned by the way), and used dishonest, impolite, and unattractive figurative language. Their desired claim could not be misconstrued as anything else. Not only has the claim denigrated the competition, it has misled the consumer in every aspect when judged according to the cosmetic claims compliance criteria (yes all six of them). As we are experiencing, this then leads to the spread of misinformation and consumer distrust. This is further compounded by issues such as the J&J talcum powder tragedy. Our products are first and foremost meant to be safe – period. Sadly, the inability of most brands to communicate effectively, and honestly with the consumer remains one of life’s enigmas!
Hyperbole for those who don’t know, is “the use of extreme exaggeration to make a point or impression.” In the eyes of the consumer it can also be confusing. Not all consumers are circumspect, and many of today’s younger consumers, especially GenZ, do not read beyond what is on social media. While the use of a certain amount of hyperbole is permitted in cosmetic claims, the hyperbole has to be clearly understood, and that the claims it is making are not literal, and therefore not believable. Classic examples of this are Unilever’s fun Axe/Lynx adverts. While they are silly to the extreme2, and even sexist at times, they have made the brand successful. However, where a cosmetic product steps over the line (and Unilever did this with aplomb), trouble and backlashing are the result. The example here is where they recently claimed that Lux soap could “inspire women to rise above sexism”. This makes no sense, even though some men (on LinkedIn) tried to state this was “hyperbole”! It was beyond hyperbole – after all a bar of soap is meant for washing not for fighting off sexism, as one of Unilever’s key investors complained about in no uncertain terms3. It was sheer nonsensical misinformation, and not the first time Lux had done this. Brands should remember the legal definition of a cosmetic, and keep their brand “activism” and “politicking” (which is a double-edged sword, and a separate topic) within their company mission statement(s), and not imply* that these statements/claims are somehow actual skin/ hair benefits.
Hyperbole is being replaced by mis- and even disinformation. We and our consumers demand cosmetic products be safe, yet misinformation is actually making them unsafe! Misinformation misleads the consumer and is contrary to all the claims criteria for claims development. If we are to get a grip on the runaway trains of misinformation, which the industry itself is mainly responsible for, we need to invest in education for beauty journalists, brand managers, marketing, and copy writers. CEO’s, financial investors, and even us cosmetic scientists have to step up, demand and even lead the way on this. Why? Because financial bottom lines are at stake, and will be seriously affected if we don’t.
Education of the consumer is vital, yet we seem to have missed-the-bus on this one because the consumer no longer trusts us. The beauty industry has the weight and power to correct itself with committed brand management4, and influence journalists and social media companies to take stronger steps to remove mis/ disinformation from their platforms. The obvious rate limiting steps here are the over-saturation of the market, and the lack of will power and engagement to do this. Moreover, we know that misinformation actually sells, and is very profitable indeed5.
- Muttaqin, Zainul & Taufiq, M. (2018). https://www.researchgate.net/publica- tion/332114974_The_Beauty_Advertising_Slogans
- https://cosmeticsbusiness.com/news/article_page/Unilever_investor_slams_ Lux_brands_purpose-driven_message/206095
*Article 20: In the labelling, making available on the market and advertising of cosmetic products, text, names, trade marks, pictures and figurative or other signs shall not be used to imply that these products have characteristics or functions which they do not have.