Advertising Lessons From the Feminists
I was shocked when I first read this article on Slate on the 10-step Korean skin care also known as K-beauty, and why it is considered as “radical self-care” by some feminist academics. After my initial reaction, I came to the conclusion that feminist like any other person can be persuaded by ideas and products. Historically, feminists have criticized the cosmetics and advertising industries (among others) for promoting or imposing beauty standards on women. Nevertheless, with this paradigm shift the feminists illustrate that in academia just like in advertising: it’s all about the angle.
The Slate article refers to this Adeline Koh’s post that shares her revelation on self-care:
I’ve started to view beauty as a form of self-care, instead of a patriarchal trap. One of my deepest inspirations, the writer and activist Audre Lorde, famously declared that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
I’ve started to see skincare as emblematic of this feminist self-care. Beauty and skincare is not frivolous, silly and vain. As Salli Hughes says, “appearance is a crucial part of our identities; grooming is a form of self-care that allows us to feel like ourselves when our worlds become unrecognizable.” Beauty is not an artificial, fake “layer” which we use to lie and hide from the world; beauty facilitates the way we think of ourselves, how we present ourselves to others, how we interact with one another. While Beauty isn’t extrinsic to our humanness, it is integral to it.
Wait. I thought feminist were concerned about the makeup tax because of the money and time required to pursue a beauty routine. Furthermore, I thought they condemned the impact of appearance on relationships and career, as well as the social reward to beauty. When the conversation on the makeup tax became public during a Facebook Q&A with Hillary Clinton last year, a Facebook staffer complained spending more than 30 minutes getting ready in the morning. Now they tell me a 10-step regime is self-preservation! And all this time I thought a beauty regime was hygiene and common sense.
In this case the feminists fans of K-beauty decided that this complex beauty treatment is congruent with their beliefs. Although anyone could easily argue the opposite: a 10-step beauty regime is a larger burden on the time and finances of women -at least compared to my 2 step personal skin regime consisting of soap and moisturizing. In sum, their positions is arbitrary. Why they decided K-beauty is different? Group thinking perhaps? Because products are oriental and are and alternative to more mainstream commercial brands? Because products are affordable? Price and product attributes apparently play a role in their choice according to Slate article:
Part of why K-beauty in particular seems to have trended in academia is that it’s gentler and often less expensive than the other methods popular in the U.S.
Affordability is an important attribute and K-beauty has an advantage over other brands. Although, following the makeup tax logic, it has a downside because of the time involved in the 10 steps. But it is precisely because it has a ritual dimension, that the feminists embrace it:
Korean spa is also primarily about relaxing with other women and hanging out, rather than just ‘go to the spa, get these things done to you, leave.’ It’s frequently a family affair.
According to their view it is not only about the results, it is about the ritual. Arguably there is personal ritual involved in using the set of products, even if the social ritual is completely diluted by just ordering products online from some Sephora, or Soko Glam which is considered pioneer and responsible for boosting the popularity of K-beauty in the US.
Philosophy and cultural values are another claim for portraying a positive background behind the k-beauty products. As explained by Charlotte Cho, the founder of Soko Glam: “I soon discovered that Korea had a skin-first philosophy — they believe that taking good care of your skin should be enjoyable, and see it as an investment in your overall well-being.” That sounds very nice, and that also sounds very French. Again, the decision is arbitrary of embracing Korean beauty products instead of the very well know French skin care and beauty brands. Just a Google search with the terms French beauty ritual shows over 1.5 million results, yet the feminists don’t advocate for that as radical self-care.
In fact, French women live in a society that follows obsessively a skin-first philosophy as well. Yet, they identify some of the discomfort with paying the “price of beauty” and meeting the social standard: “American women have some freedoms we do not. I sometimes envy them to be able to go in the street in their pajamas and flip-flops to walk their dog, which is simply impossible for me.” It is possible that the development of of K-beauty products is the result of social pressure on Korean women as well, which may affect their priorities and how they choose to present themselves to society. Again, feminists don’t seem concerned with the price of living under a skin-first philosophy, which is is a perfect example that you can say anything about the same set of facts when you have an angle.
Lifestyle compatibility is the core to a number of brands. In this case, the Slate article suggests that: “K-beauty routine can be blended fairly seamlessly with a solitary, writing-intensive profession.” What?? As far as I remember my American clay mask and my home-made beauty treatments are not noisy, in fact sometimes I wear them while I’m doing MBA homework. By the way, marketing class teaches that consumer journey is all about perception, the zero moment of truth, etc. Well, when perception fails, it is all about beliefs. Feminism is not an exact science, and at some point in time the idea clicked with a broader set of assumptions and beliefs about society. Freakonomics (p. 92) offers some helpful insights: “experts’ incentives may shift 180 degrees, depending on the situation.” An example of this is the creation of Sabbatical beauty, a skin care online retailer where you can find many products “influenced by trends in Korean beauty.” The business venture started out of frustration with beauty products in the market. Then, what came first, the chicken or the egg?
In recap, K-Beauty seeing from the group of feminists’ perspective fills 3 needs in different dimensions:
Functional: bang for your buck.
Emotional: identity, self-preservation and personal ritual.
Social: presenting yourself to society, political warfare through radical self-care and the sense of belonging.
By contrasting with the French products example we got a fine insight: it is not only about perception, sometimes it is about belief what allows to see the same set of facts under a different light. Feminists are human and they can be persuaded, and can attempt to persuade others about the attributes of a product such as the Korean beauty products. It is all about the angle! I think we can expect some similar trends in the near future given celebrity endorsement such as that of Emma Watson, who recently announced that her acting career will take a break in order to focus on feminism.
On a final note, perhaps the real empowerment is to recognize women are not victims of the advertising, cosmetics and fashion industries, but people susceptible of adopting discretionary and arbitrary beliefs -with and despite media influence. And just because women empowerment is a serious matter, we shouldn’t forget to share a giggle: