You’ve seen the advertising claims: a certain skin cream will make you look 10 years younger, a mascara will add a lush fringe around your eyes, a hair product will leave your hair smooth and sleek for months.
And to prove it, there’s an actress or supermodel in the ad, looking youthful, batting long lashes, tossing a mane of luxurious hair.
Does it seem too good to be true? That might well be the case, given the probability of digital photo enhancements and the temptation to exaggerate to grab consumer attention.
But good news for consumers: Today multiple sources have your back.
For starters, government and watchdog agencies in the U.S. and abroad increasingly are cracking down on advertising claims in the cosmetics industry.
In September, for instance, the Federal Drug Administration issued a warning letter to Lancôme USA saying that the claims made in marketing for several Lancôme anti-aging products are more consistent with results that might come from drugs, but without the products going through the FDA process for vetting drugs to see if they can really do what they claim they can do.
In 2011, the watchdog National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus denounced a CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara ad starring Taylor Swift for digitally plumping up the celeb’s eyelashes and only noting in a tiny disclaimer that her lashes were enhanced in post-production. P&G, which owns CoverGirl, subsequently pulled the ad.
In the United Kingdom, the British Advertising Standards Authority has taken a tough line. In the last couple of years it has banned ads by Lancôme, Maybelline, L’Oréal Revitalift Repair 10 and DiorShow New Look Mascara — starring Julia Roberts, Christy Turlington, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman, respectively — for being so extensively airbrushed or digitally altered that the product marketing claims were misleading, showing results too perfect to be true. In 2007, the same agency cracked down on a L’Oreal mascara ad featuring Penélope Cruz because she was wearing false eyelashes, not just mascara. And the agency also banned an ad for Rimmel Magnif’Eyes mascara that digitally enhanced supermodel Kate Moss’ peepers.
Back home in California, the state attorney general’s office last year went after a company doing business as Brazilian Blowout for deceptive advertising practices and selling a hair-straightening treatment with a chemical ingredient known to be a human carcinogen that could pose a workplace danger to stylists. The attorney general’s action resulted in the company being ordered to cease deceptive advertising, pay penalties and affix cautionary language to its products and its website.
“Improper claims made in the labeling of cosmetics have escalated over the years,” says FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward. “FDA is concerned that consumers are being offered products with claims that are not supported by scientific data. FDA wants to ensure that labeling for cosmetic products is appropriate and that the products do not include claims that are not allowed.”
In the Lancôme case, the FDA warning letter calls out specific products in the company’s Génifique, Absolue and Rénergie lines as appearing to be promoted as drugs. “The claims on your web site indicate that these products are intended to affect the structure or any function of the human body, rendering them drugs under the[Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act],” the letter says. It highlights product claims and phrases, including: "[B]oosts the activity of genes and stimulates the production of youth proteins,” "…has been shown to improve the condition around the stem cells and stimulate cell regeneration to reconstruct skin to a denser quality” and “immediate lifting, lasting repositioning. Inspired by eye-lifting surgical techniques....”
The FDA is basically saying either don’t pretend these products do more than they actually do or prove they are powerful drugs by going through the FDA’s approval process.
Contacted for comment, Rebecca Caruso, executive vice president of corporate communications at L’Oreal USA, said only that the company is aware of the FDA’s letter and “will respond to their regulatory concerns in a timely manner. Lancôme is committed to complying fully with all laws and regulatory standards.”
C. Lee Peeler, president and chief executive of the National Advertising Review Council, says his advisory group applies the same standards to advertising as does the Federal Trade Commission: They ask if ad claims are substantiated and if anything in the ad is misleading.
“For example, if you claim that a product makes your skin looks 20% younger, do you have studies that meet rigorous standards that support those claims?” says Peeler, who previously worked at the FTC for 33 years as associate director of the Division of Advertising Practices and deputy director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
His advertising review council is not a government agency. It was created by a partnership of advertising organizations in 1971 and is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The mission is to foster truth and accuracy in national advertising through self-regulation. “We monitor ads and take complaints from competitors, consumers — anyone about advertising claims,” Peeler says. “It’s a voluntary process supported by advertisers but it’s really remarkable, we have well over 95% voluntary compliance with the changes we recommend and we do hold [businesses] to a high standard. The [CoverGirl NatureLuxe Mousse Mascara] case is an example of that.”
Besides the efforts of government and industry advisory groups, the digital age allows women and advocacy organizations to share and compare product information. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, the California Safe Cosmetics Program’s publicly available database of toxic chemicals in cosmetics, the Breast Cancer Fund, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Consumer Reports all have credible information available on cosmetic ingredients. The book “No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics” by Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt is another resource.
“There’s a growing awareness that there are toxic chemicals in products we use at home every day,” says Dr. Nerissa Wu of the California Safe Cosmetics Program, which is part of the state Department of Public Health. “There’s so much on the Internet, including social media groups where people can post their opinions. Information is just so readily available that I think some of these things are starting to move more quickly.”
California has been at the forefront of environmental and health issues and is leading the way in protecting the public from harmful cosmetic ingredients. The California Safe Cosmetics Act was signed into law in 2005, requiring manufacturers to report the use of any hazardous or potentially hazardous ingredients to the state.
“Consumers should be aware of what they’re purchasing and have the ability to make informed decisions,” Wu says.
Then there are websites such as Jezebel, which calls out advertisers in its Photoshop of Horrors column where it points out egregious examples of altered photos in the fashion and beauty industries. In September, for instance, the column showed how Numero magazine had altered a photo to make model Karlie Kloss’ rib bones look less pronounced.
The website Photoshop Disasters also highlights extreme photo alterations, and there are even websites such as Fourandsix.com through which you can vet a photo to see if it has been altered on your own.
And indeed there is also a responsibility on the consumer’s part to maintain a sense of skepticism about some ad claims. “The main reason why lies succeed is because the target doesn’t want to know the truth,” says psychologist and author Dr. Paul Ekman. “We’re all in collusion with advertisers, unwittingly, because we’d like to believe that products do what they claim.”