Thursday, 29 July 2010

Lies, damned lies and the dubious world of cosmetics advertising

Let's face it, most people's ability to analyse statistics is pretty poor. In fact we can consider ourselves lucky if we know anything beyond mean, median, and mode, and certainly left- and right-skewing isn't a popular topic of conversation. Perhaps that's why the multi-billion pound global beauty industry uses such bizarre examples in their advertising, on the grounds that few punters will understand any of it. Not being a regular reader of women's magazines most of what I pick up is via flicking between TV channels, occasionally spotting some famous actress or supermodel accompanied by such interesting statements as '83 out of 114 women agree' (although I made that one up).

Isn't it fairly obvious that there are two concerns here? Firstly, the figures aren't easy to simplify to lowest common denominators, lacking the nice, rounded character of say, 80 out of 120. Secondly, the numbers are so small. Following the MMR scandal and its case study group of 12, surely few could think such a low sampling as my fictional 114 could be taken as a worthwhile trial? Yet I cannot think of a single example from this sector where the study (if we can call it that) exceeded 200. Are the numbers parts of some elaborate in-joke by the cosmetics industry or are they based on genuine data, in which case are the polls conducted by marketing agencies with very short attention spans?

Despite recommendations that the UK's Cosmetics, Toiletries and Perfumery Association members are meant to adhere to, outsider knowledge of what the beauty product multinationals get up to is minimal. Most companies test their products on other animals before moving onto humans, but how scientific is the research conducted on the latter? If the advertising figures are based around how punters ‘feel' (surely a profoundly subjective word), there is more than a hint that the research hasn't involved standard scientific procedures such as double-blind or placebo experiments.

And of course, no information is given as to where the punters were found: in statistical terms, how random was the sampling frame? So despite the sophisticated research that often goes into developing the products, their marketing appears to offer the antithesis in the form of essentially worthless polls and neo-scientific yet nonsensical compound words. Even innocent-sounding phrases such as "natural looking skin" aren't worth anything; after all, isn't all skin natural looking if it is free of make-up and cosmetic surgery? A combination of genetics and lifestyle - I really hate that last word - are responsible for the condition of your skin, with few people nowadays failing to recognise that sunbathing smokers are unlikely to retain a youthful complexion even with the aid of pots of ground up chicken feet and the food of queen bees.

That the product manufacturers have kept one step ahead of the cynicism is perhaps not all that difficult to explain. Our popular culture and media are obsessed with youth (which is nothing new - take classical Greece as an example) but at least modern legislation prevents the use of obviously insane ingredients. After all, it is far less than a century since radium was used in hair cream and toothpaste. It seems we may have slightly less gullibility than previous generations, yet even a temporary improvement in our appearance is inviting enough to fork out vast sums of money for.

But is all this about to change? In the last few years a radically different range of beauty products has been in development that appears to be rather more than usual temporary Polyfilla. Trials are taking place involving skin cream that may be an early form of "cosmeceutical", able to restore the structure of skin rather than simply obscuring aging and damage. As for me, I'm watching with interest the research into mimicking the effect of enzymes that prevent loss of hair colour - or even reverse it. What, vain? Me? Surveys suggest that only 1 in 10 men don't mind the natural greying process. Okay, I made that one up too!