Friday, November 23, 2012

Stop talking to us like we're idiots

Welcome to the inaugural post of a series I'm starting called Show Your Working, in which I apply scientific rigour and common sense to various aspects of cosmetics.

One of the things that has kept me away from beauty products and the entire beauty industry for so long is the widespread habit of marketing to their consumers like they're blithering idiots. Instead of just telling us what the product does, they make outrageous, totally unverifiable claims, and then try and make us feel like it's our fault if the product doesn't do what they promised.

Here is the example that is annoying the piss out of me right now - The Clairsonic.

There are many annoyances like it, but this one is my annoyance
It's basically a very fine brush that whizzes around very, very fast, to clean your skin. If they just SAID that, I wouldn't have as much of a problem. But it's all the nonsense they add on that makes me so angry.
Let's start with the liberal usage of "sonic".  Reading this, and knowing what "sonic" actually means (involving, or producing sound OR having a speed equal to that of sound in air), I would expect that this product would claim to be beaming some sort of sonic signal into your skin to make it prettier. So I had a read through the marketing material, expecting a good chuckle at the outrageous claims.

There's lots about how it's really good at cleaning stuff off your skin - which is fair enough. I imagine a rapidly spinning brush WOULD be very good for cleaning your skin, much as an electric toothbrush is better than a normal hand powered one. But all the marketing material reads to me like they expect their audience to be so stupid as to not notice that they plaster "sonic" all over it, without any sort of explanation as to what is "sonic" about it, or why that's good. Even the section on the site entitled "Sonic Benefits" has no mention of any effect that could be attributed to anything other than a rapidly spinning brush. There is ONE mention of "sonic" in relation to the actual function of the device, here;
"Clarisonic Sonic Skin Cleansing Systems use a patented sonic frequency of more than 300 movements per second."
So it doesn't claim to make any sound. Which means it must be sonic because it moves 300 times per second? That's...that's not sonic either. It's SUBSONIC, but I suppose that doesn't sound as good.
(edit: I have been informed this speed of movement DOES in fact qualify this as moving at "sonic" speed. I still don't see what benefit that is supposed to offer though, unless skin cells are running away from it so fast it needs to move faster than sound)
This all means it's really just a rapidly spinning brush for polishing off the dead skin on your face. 


One of the reasons I am happy to give Lush all of my money is because they DON'T engage in this kind of nonsense. I go in there, ask what a cream does, and the staff say "It makes your skin feel soft, and smell good." And I'm all, "Hell yes, give me some of that." I don't feel ripped off because I know what I'm paying for - the products they have are expensive because certain ingredients are hella expensive. They don't tell me it will do something it won't. They don't fuck me around, and I appreciate that with my wallet.

As I said before, I imagine a rapidly spinning brush WOULD be pretty good at cleaning your skin. But why do they not even bother to provide any sort of practical claim on this front? They compare cleansing with the product to cleansing with "your hands alone" - I don't know about you, but I tend to use soap and water, and maybe even a washcloth if I'm feeling fancy. I've never tried to clean my face with "hands alone." But semantics aside, it seems like a perfectly sellable product. So why talk to us like we're stupid?

I've been doing a lot of reading lately about beauty products and makeup advice etc, in preparation for being able to write something of worth in this blog. And I've noticed that there is a certain pattern of language that goes across all the advertising, and even leaks into the blogs that cover this sort of thing. There is an assumption created by the advertising, and accepted by a lot of the consumers, that if the product doesn't work, it's your fault. You're not putting it on right. You didn't use the right moisturiser. It's not for your skin type. You've got too many blemishes. You didn't brush your skin with a two hundred dollar nailbrush first. Your skin is too "impure". It's your fault.

Take this from the Clairsonic website;
"Typical manual cleansing can leave behind dirt and oil trapped in pores. This build-up can damage the appearance and health of your skin and keep your skin care products from working like they should."

"They're eating my beauty!"
I love that with one sentence, they manage to acknowledge that skin products DON'T work, but still manages to place the blame for this squarely on the consumer.  If only I had known this before - I'm not cleaning my face right, and THAT'S why my stupidly expensive face cream isn't erasing my wrinkles like I was promised it would. It's not because erasing my wrinkles with a cream is a physical impossibility. It's because I don't have this thing! *facepalm* How could I have been so silly? 

It sounds ridiculous when I put it like this, but you read enough of this kind of babble and it starts to make sense. You see it enough places, and it feels like YOU'RE the crazy one. It reminds me of the disorientation I felt after being in Paris for a day or so when I spoke very little French. The signs are in french, the movies are all in French, everyone around me is speaking French...I began to have this weird paranoia in the back of my head that English was just a delusion. That's how I feel when reading these beauty product writeups. There are so many wildly spurious claims, (my favourite is "It really made a difference!" without specifying what KIND of difference) padded out with pseudo scientific mumbo jumbo that you feel like you must be the one who is stupid. We, as consumers, are not as stupid as they treat us. If they just SAY "it cleans your skin really well," we can follow that. If they put in a little diagram comparing it to an electric toothbrush, even better. All perfectly rational, straightforward explanation. But why claim it's "sonic"? JUST TELL ME WHAT IT DOES!!
So much of this material is a conversation that spirals inwards like a fractal, until it makes no sense whatsoever to an outside observer, but the blame is still on you for not following them down the rabbit hole.

And it drives me mad.

Reading these marketing spiels to my boy is my favourite way to see them from an entirely outside light for the complete jibberish they are. He's not interested in makeup in the slightest - he notices if I wear it, but doesn't give a damn if I don't. He doesn't read the magazines, or the advertising, or the blogs. He comes from a delightfully straightforward point of view on these things.
Here's a transcript of me reading the Clairsonic site out loud, and his helpful commentary.

Me: Used and recommended by spas and dermatologists...
The Boy: Which ones?
Me: It doesn't say.
The Boy: Is this like the "many doctors" who told the Republicans you couldn't get pregnant from rape, when it was actually just one total nutcase?
Me:...ANYWAY, apparently Clarisonic Sonic Skin Cleansing Systems use a patented sonic frequency of more than 300 movements per second...
The Boy: That's not sonic. I mean, I'm not a physicist, but I'm pretty sure that's not sonic.
Me: gently, yet thoroughly remove 6X more makeup and 2X more dirt and oil than cleansing with your hands alone.
The Boy: With your hands? LIKE A HEATHEN!!
Me: Cleaner skin is the first step toward healthier skin. And healthier skin is smoother, more radiant and more beautiful.
The Boy: So it's a fancy cleaner then.
The Boy: So why does it cost $200?
Me: polishes your skin?
The Boy: Like a table?
Me: Ah...sort of?
The Boy: Let me read the testimonials....*grabs the laptop*
The Boy: ''I don't feel clean unless I brush my face!?" What the hell?! Are you a horse? "My skin actually feels like it can breathe, something ordinary cleansing missed the mark on." Maybe if you didn't trowel on a layer of spak filler to try and hide your hideous pores, you wouldn't need to take the top layer of your skin off to feel clean! And this one, " I've already received several comments in the last 2 weeks since the purchase about how great my skin looks". Correlation is not causation, LADY.
Me: *At this point laughing too hard to continue the conversation*

So that's how I deal with an overload of this kind of nonsense, when I feel like the whole world is speaking French and my desire for clear, straightforward explanation of what something actually DOES makes me the only English speaker.

I just wish I didn't have to. 


  1. Human hears can hear sounds from 20Hz to 20000Hz. So 300Hz is actually sonic... (Trust me, I'm an engineer.)

    Now the question is : "is a sonic screwdriver able to open doors or to actually do anything for this matter, beside when we are in a Sci-Fi TV show ?"
    The answer is YES, and trust me, I'm The Doctor.
    (Now I stop the joke, but it was such an easy one...)
    So yeah, the ads about this product were full of shit, and so are the ones about everything. The very definition of the word "advertisement" is so full of the words "shit" and "crap" than both these words should refer back to "advertisement" in the dictionary.
    Beside the fact that I like dictionaries, there's nothing new here...

    And about sonic things, I just checked, the Hitachi magic wand vibrates at about 100Hz (Not only is it *the* magic wand, but it's sonic...)

  2. ...damn, I stand corrected.

    Of course, I still don't see what kind of benefit that would offer.

  3. I think this sort of thing ( is what they're trying to evoke with the whole sonic thing, but whether (a) the Clarisonic is able to generate the cavitation bubbles against the skin when neither is submerged in liquid; and (b) skin can (should?) be cleaned by cavitation is (to me) really, really dubious.


    1. Oh! I've heard of that now you point it out. As you say, the translation over to a whizzing brush is ...dubious. I'm also not sure I want any cleaning method called "caviation" applied to my face.

      Go ahead and creep all you like! I dig the attention :D


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