Makeup Ads Need an Extreme Makeover

Every once in a while, when in an escapist mood, I throw a Cosmo or Glamour in my cart at the grocery store. I also admit to having an annual subscription to Vogue; I believe it’s healthy to have a dose of unattainable otherness in one’s life. As a friend of mine once remarked, “Dreaming is free.”

When reading a women’s magazine, you know what to expect: pandering articles regarding beauty, clothes, shoes, sex, relationships, health, and occasionally, social issues. Articles saying you don’t have to look like a model or celebrity to be happy with yourself, then ads telling you the exact opposite.

Worst and least creative of all are the numerous ads for makeup. Usually taking up an entire spread, many brands with more than one placement, they simultaneously blare and recede. Except for slight differences, most incorporate the same design elements:

1. A really, really big face, usually a celebrity or well-known model (link to death of the supermodel)

2. Large logo

3. Lots of subheads and small type for the product description

4. Busy backgrounds, usually a city, interior, or brightly colored backdrop

5. A seasonal make-up “theme” associated with a mini-line of products

The experience of viewing several of these in a magazine is not unlike passing billboards on the highway. Normally you don’t pay attention to them unless the advertising company is promoting the billboard’s own vacancy with an elegant little tagline like, “Does advertising work? It just did!” A billboard is even more noticeable when it’s completely empty, alone and decrepit on the frontage road. But this is not meant to be a rumination on the stark beauty of postmodern wasteland.

Or is it? By using conventional type, images and layout, the cosmetics industry shows it’s out of touch with its consumer base, especially with the younger audiences that read women’s magazines. These brands are based in the old paradigm that believes women need makeup because we need a mask to hide feelings of anger, depression and inadequacy from ourselves and those we have relationships with, just as we have been expected to for centuries.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, the everyday use of makeup for many women has shifted from an absolute necessity to an amusement. It’s like playing in our mother’s valuable, obligatory makeup when we were little girls. (Which is why I was punished when I played with makeup! In those days, my mom seemed to think it was a life-or-death situation if she wasn’t wearing lipstick. She has since relinquished much of her attachment to makeup.) The color products featured in seasonal campaigns somewhat reflect this change, but again, the conservative graphic design betrays the aim of playfulness. The increase of light-wearing, long-wearing, oil-free, moisturizing, anti-aging, etc. products in the market like base and powder has is not so much about putting on a mask of flawlessness regardless of what irritation it causes, than it is about feeling comfortable in your own skin.

Putting your best, healthiest face forward means you should be confident in projecting your own personal style, especially since there’s a variety of choices available. And big brands also seem to be unaware of the variety of faces out there too. Cover Girl probably considered it highly progressive to use Queen Latifah as a salesmodel. Beyoncé Knowles’ contract with L’Oreal states that she cannot change anything about her appearance without their explicit permission. Estée Lauder was applauded like Bill Clinton at an NAACP meeting upon signing Ethiopian model Liya Kebede as its first model of color last year (and it must be noted that even Kebede’s facial structure fits the mold of Carolyn Murphy’s frigid perfection, unlike the unique radiance of Alek Wek, an African model who has dominated the runways for at least the past 5 years). By continuing to push the big mask-like, usually white faces (link to cover girl image on my website), big brands risk losing connection with a diverse audience. Especially marginalized women that precisely need the confidence of feeling comfortable in their own skin.

The best way to address these issues requires a drastic change in branding. This breakthrough was half-accomplished in the early 1990’s by the tremendously successful Urban Decay in its name alone. Through an ultrahip, quasi-degenerate rock star mystique, Urban Decay propagated unheard-of color products like blue nail polish and shimmering green lipstick. All this was done with hardly any advertising, except the buzz generated by beauty editors giving props to it in their sections. By the late 90’s, all the big companies had followed suit and were offering their own glittery goop, and today, nearly 15 years later, even Tinkerbell has given up her wand to all things bright and sparkly in the tween market. Shouldn’t the success of a highly original cosmetics brand be further emulated not just through product lines, but through advertising design as well?

Clinique’s print ads from the mid to late 1990’s were also a wonderful study in simplicity, almost approached as a design school problem. The only features were a photo of the package with a swipe or dusting of the product around it on a white background, establishing a “clinical,” healthy brand. In more recent ads, however, Clinique’s photographers seem to think the minimalist approach is on its way out, lacking in pizzazz. A few elements of former atypical elegance remain, but now the makeup is haphazardly spilled all the whitespace. It’s not even a well-thought-out mess (there is such a thing).

The Pink-a-pades ads from the 1960’s would be a great model to follow. Not only were they promoting that essential mod cosmetic, frosty pink-white lipstick, the design itself is truly a sign of the times, inspired by the psychadelic graphic art movement to create a very hip, appealing ad. By relying more on illustration, good copywriting and better type choices, designers for the cosmetics industry would have greater freedom to navigate with the trends of today’s youth. The emphasis would not be on a flawless white face, but on how the consumer uses the product to create their own style. Drawing on inspiration from the trendier venues of graphic art, a total re-thinking of makeup ads would add individuality and diversity not only the company brands, but to the concept of beauty in general.

This industry does not just need an update; it needs a huge reality check. Not a-slenderizing-new-haircut-and-vertical-stripes makeover, or a nip-here-tuck-there but a hit-the-gym-and-throw-away-everything-you-own transformation.


  • p.

    Wow. This is fantastic entry. You ARE a good writer- excellent critical points. You’ve done you’re research. Brava!

  • cover girl makeup

    Well done on a nice blog Art Diva. I was looking for information on eye makeup tips and came across your post this post – not precisely what I was looking for related to eye makeup tips but an interesting read all the same!

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