In 1857, Sweden's Dr. Gustav Zander brought the world the belt-driven fat massager, a machine that, the good doctor claimed, would literally shake the pounds off of you. Today, we have liposuction, lunchtime Botox shots, and home microdermabrasion kits to help us obtain and maintain beauty.
Whether it's using a special potion, like the La Prairie brand's $650 Skin Caviar Luxe Cream, or signing up for something more invasive, everyone, it seems, is striving for flawlessness.
"The wisdom that a person's character can be etched on his or her face, or the observation that at twenty you have the face nature gave you and at fifty you have the face you merit, no longer applies," writes Alex Kuczynski, the New York Times Styles section reporter turned author in her book Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession With Cosmetic Surgery.
Although the human pursuit of beauty is age-old, the type of PR practices to support it are somewhat recent, created by a number of factors that have changed the beauty and cosmetics industries.
"When I started the business 12 years ago, only a few doctors had publicists," says Rebecca Brooks, president of Brooks PR. "The ones who did didn't want their peers to know."
Now, Brooks says that plastic surgeons and cosmetic dermatologists are "proud" to have PR representation to help in their quest for increased business on a local level, a book deal, a skincare line, or an in with a pharmaceutical company who needs doctors to serve as influencers for a trial or initiative. Although these clients are medical doctors, Brooks doesn't classify her work as healthcare PR.
"I think healthcare [PR] is something completely different," says Brooks. "We develop personalities and develop brands."
Other firms deal more with pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, both of which require more of a healthcare focus.
"At Fleishman-Hillard, we've established a real hybrid communications capability that marries the best of necessary FDA approval regulation with a strong focus on who is the target, [and] raising awareness and spurring adoption," says Lauren Letellier, SVP and senior partner in Fleishman's consumer healthcare group.
These companies have the added worry of what physicians are saying to the public.
"Many of the top plastic surgeons and top aesthetic dermatologists hire publicists to get them on TV and in magazines," continues Letellier. "The doctors are promoting themselves and their practices to get new patients. So they'll frequently make claims about a product that is out of line with how far the company is willing to go about that product. It's a gold rush for these guys."
No matter who they represent, ultimately it's the beauty-seeking population that agencies are after. The number and quality of beauty products and procedures has risen dramatically in the last 15 years and now, it seems, everyone has a regimen.
"Beauty companies really understand the role their products play in their consumer's lives," says Jennifer Cohan, managing director of GolinHarris New York. She has worked with Avon and P&G in the past and currently works with The Body Shop. "The consumer is more confident and more confidently addresses beauty. The fact that women are more open is good because the consumer is letting the company know what does and doesn't fly."
Certainly, men also partake in some of what the beauty industry has to offer (Kuczynski talks about a male friend who has Botox shot into his hands and armpits to curb sweating), but women are still the focus. Increasingly, those consumers are baby boomers, who still feel young and want their looks on the outside to reflect that.
"You're not going to suggest to a baby boomer that she is physically past her prime," says Cohan. "It's just her needs have changed. It's adopting the right tone."
While some will go to great lengths and great expense to achieve their look, many go to the local drugstore. Consumers don't have to feel that they're sacrificing results because they're not spending a fortune. The strategy behind P&G's Regenerist, an Olay brand, was letting the public know that it contained the same active ingredient as StriVectin, another anti-aging cream. A daily Regenerist serum is being sold at a local drugstore for about $20; StriVectin is about $120.
"The Olay brand has transformed in the past five or six years, led by a basic pillar of innovation across the brand, reengaging with women, and rebranding what it stood for," says P&G's Kash Shaikh, who has recently moved from communications manager in beauty care, where he worked on Olay, to communications manager in fabric care. "Because of robust R&D, we can offer [the same quality] at drugstores versus having to pay that at a department store."
In fact, it's not just the products that are democratized, but the media impressions that they get. Beauty magazines and their editors are still the biggest players in the PR business for these products and procedures. Olay ads can run side-by-side with StriVectin or La Prairie, and consumers don't care.
"The Body Shop and Avon are more accessible than an expensive procedure that not everyone can afford," says Cohan. "But if you examine the pages of a magazine, which is where most beauty coverage appears most consistently, it's all in there."
While it seems superficial to expend so much time and attention on that which is only skin-deep, there are potential CSR elements in any beauty campaign. The Body Shop has a long history with environmental and community trade initiatives. And Cohan credits the beauty industry with bringing increased awareness to the fight against breast cancer.
But not everything is so pretty. Advances have been made quickly and there's been speculation about how long it will take for the side effects from some now-common practices to show. Already, Botox has run into trouble, leading to a high-profile lawsuit. And there are always questions of whether you're actually getting the miracle outcome you're being promised.
"It's almost a good opportunity when something negative comes out," says Brooks. "You have to have an educated consumer. If you have a good, credible doctor, they can reinforce the warnings."
And, while beauty products say they will help you look good, feeling good is also a big part of the equation.
"I wouldn't generalize that women are doing these things because they're feeling the ravages of age," says Cohan. "I don't equate women taking better care of themselves with aging. I think it's a contributing factor, but I don't think it's the whole story."