The Perils of Perception* - The Consumer versus the Rest of Us Theresa Callaghan Euro Cosmetics Magazine

The Perils of Perception* – The Consumer versus the Rest of Us

In the realm of cosmetics, there often exists a significant gap between what is stated or written on product labels or advertisements and how consumers perceive these claims. This disconnection arises due to various factors, including marketing tactics, consumer psychology, and regulatory loopholes.

Why don’t consumers get what we are (trying) to say, and why do the authorities always have a different view? Are we missing something?

This month I delve into the intriguing topic of perception, particularly in the context of cosmetic claims and consumer behaviour. We are no strangers when it comes to how there can often be a significant gap between what is said or written in advertising claims and how consumers perceive those claims. I’ve even devoted a whole chapter on the subject in the second edition of Help! I’m Covered in Adjectives – Cosmetic Claims & The Consumer, which highlights the very complex interplay between advertising regulation, consumer psychology, and the interpretation of evidence in shaping perceptions of cosmetic claims.

One primary reason for the disparity between us, the consumer and the authorities, is the use of exaggerated and certainly ambiguous language in cosmetic claims. For instance, a product may advertise itself as “anti-ageing,” implying that it can reverse or halt the aging process. However, in reality, most cosmetics only offer temporary improvements in appearance, such as reducing the visibility of wrinkles or fine lines.

Furthermore, consumers often interpret cosmetic claims based on their desires and beliefs rather than critically evaluating the scientific evidence behind them. This tendency can lead to misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about a product’s efficacy. For example, a moisturizer marketed as “natural” may be perceived as safer and more effective, even though natural ingredients do not guarantee better results or safety! Another factor contributing to the gap between cosmetic claims and consumer perception is the influence of social media and celebrity endorsements. Many consumers trust influencers and celebrities to endorse products, assuming that they have personally experienced positive results. However, these endorsements may be paid for or sponsored, leading to biased representations of product efficacy.

The disparity between what is said or written about cosmetics and how consumers perceive these claims stems from a combination of marketing tactics, consumer psychology, and regulatory limitations. To bridge this gap, there is a need for more transparent labelling, evidence-based marketing, and consumer education about cosmetic ingredients and their effects on skin health.

Several psychological factors contribute to this phenomenon:

  • Desire for Improvement – Consumers are often motivated by the desire to enhance their appearance or address specific concerns, such as aging signs or skin imperfections. Cosmetic advertisements capitalise on these desires by promising transformative results, leading consumers to interpret product claims optimistically.
  • Confirmation Bias – Consumers tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or desires while ignoring contradictory evidence. In the context of cosmetics, individuals may focus on positive testimonials or anecdotal evidence supporting a product’s efficacy while disregarding scientific studies or warnings about potential risks.
  • Emotional Appeal – Cosmetic advertisements frequently evoke emotions such as happiness, confidence, or desire for acceptance. By associating their products with positive emotions or desirable lifestyles, brands create an emotional connection with consumers, influencing their perceptions and purchase decisions.
  • Social Media – Humans are inherently social beings and are influenced by the behaviour and opinions of others, including friends, family, and celebrities. Social media platforms amplify this effect, with influencers and celebrities shaping consumer perceptions through product endorsements and sponsored content.
  • Limited Attention Span and Information Processing – In today’s fast-paced world, consumers are bombarded with a constant stream of information and advertisements. As a result, they may rely on cognitive shortcuts or guesstimates to make quick decisions, leading them to overlook details or critically evaluate cosmetic claims.
  • Wishful Thinking – Consumers often engage in wishful thinking, believing that a product will deliver the desired results despite limited evidence or scientific plausibility. This optimism bias can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment if the product fails to meet expectations.
  • Perceived Value – Consumers tend to perceive higher-priced products as more effective or of higher quality. Cosmetic companies leverage this bias by pricing their products at premium levels, leading consumers to infer greater efficacy based on the price tag.

Understanding these psychological factors is crucial for both consumers and regulatory agencies to navigate the complexities of the cosmetic industry.

At the other end of the spectrum, advertising standard authorities play a vital role in regulating cosmetic claims to ensure they adhere to ethical standards and do not mislead consumers. While these authorities aim to uphold truthfulness and accuracy in advertising, their challenges to cosmetic claims may intersect with or diverge from the psychological factors influencing consumer perception! Here’s my view on this ‘perception’:

  • Alignment with Consumer Protection – Advertising standard authorities align with consumer protection by scrutinising cosmetic claims to ensure they are substantiated by scientific evidence and do not exploit consumer vulnerabilities. By challenging exaggerated or misleading claims, these authorities promote transparency and prevent companies from exploiting psychological biases to manipulate consumer perceptions.
  • Perception of Reality – While advertising standard authorities strive to enforce objective standards, their assessments of cosmetic claims may still be influenced by subjective interpretations or biases. For example, determining whether a claim is “misleading” or “deceptive” may involve subjective judgment calls, especially in cases where scientific evidence is inconclusive or ambiguous.
  • Interpretation of Evidence – Advertising standard authorities rely on scientific evidence and expert opinions to evaluate cosmetic claims objectively. However, interpreting scientific data can be complex, and different interpretations may arise based on individual perspectives or biases. As a result, authorities may occasionally misinterpret or overlook certain nuances in the evidence.
  • Regulatory Frameworks – The regulatory frameworks established by advertising standard authorities may reflect societal values, legal requirements, and industry standards. While these frameworks aim to protect consumers from deceptive advertising practices, they may not always fully account for the intricate interplay of psychological factors influencing consumer perception. Moreover the legal language/jargon is grey at best and can easily be misinterpreted.

Bridging the gap between what is said, read, and perceived is not an easy task, particularly in the context of cosmetic claims and consumer behaviour. Despite efforts by advertising standard authorities to regulate and ensure the accuracy of cosmetic claims, psychological factors such as confirmation bias, social proof, and emotional appeals can influence consumer perception. The complex interplay between advertising regulation, consumer psychology, and the interpretation of evidence in shaping perceptions of cosmetic claims, underscores the importance of critical thinking skills and consumer education in empowering individuals to make informed decisions and navigate the world of advertising effectively.

EURO COSMETICS Magazine • Theresa Callaghan • Theresa Callaghan • Theresa Callaghan
Theresa Callaghan
Skin Care Scientist and Cosmetic Product Claim Specialist

Theresa Callaghan, a PhD biochemist with over 35 years of experience in corporate skin care research, has held key R&D senior roles for companies including LVMH, Unilever, Marks & Spencer, J&J, Evonik, Hill-Top Research, and proDERM. In 2008, she created Callaghan Consulting International, focusing on cosmetic claims development with brands and ingredient suppliers. She is a widely published author, frequent speaker, and contributor to peer-reviewed journals. Her acclaimed book, 'Help! I'm Covered in Adjectives: Cosmetic Claims & The Consumer', has gained popularity. She is a member of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists and British Herbal Medicine Association, and has lectured at the University of Sunderland's School of Pharmacy and Cosmetic Sciences. Theresa serves on the editorial peer review board of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. She also mentors and has her own Cosmetic Claims Insights Column with EuroCosmetics.

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