Consider the following case study of human perversity. A store offers scores of anti-ageing products. After extensive research, it is made very public that only one has been clinically backed to work. Now, in any sane universe, this should make consumers so angry with the store that they decline to shop there again, certainly until some kind of reform of product selection is undertaken, or at least until the store owners face up to what they're doing and commission a series of sandwich boards reading simply: "Snake Oil Sold Here".
In fact, the effect is more akin to an onslaught of stampeding wildebeest. The atmosphere is likened to other great British triumphs of optimism over reason, such as the queue for Wimbledon, or the belief that sleeping outside Harrods in order to take advantage of 30% off a £6,000 dinner service constitutes saving money. At times like this, you might wonder how the human race noticed the moon was up there, let alone stuck a man on it. Perhaps there was rumoured to be a supply of discounted placebos among the green cheese craters, and his wife would have lynched him if he hadn't snagged it.
Alas, such scenes appear to be threatening again, as Boots launches the follow-up to the insanely successful Protect and Perfect serum, pretty much the only mass-market anti-ageing product clinically backed to work. You know, apart from the sunhat. And that's assuming you regard £16.75 for 30ml as mass market. The serum's slight benefits were publicised in a Horizon programme, and Boots sold its entire year's supply within two weeks of the programme airing.
The new must-have is a Protect and Perfect cream designed for your whole body, and news of the release has been attended by jaunty headlines along the lines of "Elbows at the ready, girls!". Obviously, the discovery of the secret of eternal youth is a Good Thing ... And yet, even to the tenuously sane, the Protect and Perfect stampedes should seem just another instance of the growing phenomenon we might call hysteria marketing, in which enormous resources are deployed to create a febrile atmosphere around a product.
Witness the celebrity clothing ranges that blow like tornadoes into the high street. A launch's success seems to be measured by the extent to which major thoroughfares such as London's Oxford Street are shut down. When Kate Moss unveiled her first range for Topshop, the store was revealed to be "working closely with police" to avoid crowd trouble. Working closely with police!
Perhaps most bizarrely - certainly most depressingly - these hysteria-marketing stampedes have gone hand in hand with developments that suggest we should have become more cynical as consumers. Advertising standards are tighter than ever, "airbrushing" is a phenomenon of which girls of 10 are aware, and celebrity magazines are filled with disturbingly myth-busting features in which no sweat patch is left unexposed.
Yet the more trickery that is revealed, the more we buy, in ever more self-loathing fashion. Rimmel and L'Oréal have recently been reprimanded for faking eyelashes in mascara ads, but the blithe chatter in the industry was that "everyone knows" this is "standard practice". It's tough to think of a more contemptuously cavalier justification. We're lying to you, but hey, so is everyone else, and you're probably dimly aware of it anyway, so where's the harm?
If it makes you feel better about yourself, runs the argument for everything from snake oil to smocks, it must be a good thing. Clearly, though, there are ways and ways to make one's customers "feel better" about themselves. Take Dove, whose campaign for "real beauty" has won plaudits from most corners. Its current ad is called Onslaught, and shows a young girl being bombarded with mind-bendingly suggestive beauty industry imagery. Slogan: "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does".
Yet for every brand like Dove, there are 10 more like Fair & Lovely, which sells whitening face creams to Indian women. Fair & Lovely's packaging depicts an unhappy dark-skinned woman changing into a happy light-skinned woman. The New York Times recently pointed out that "it once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might have finding romance ... The company's ads now show lighter skin conferring a distinct advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men ... Their current ad is taglined The Power of Beauty". Perhaps needless to say, both Fair & Lovely and Dove are owned by Unilever. Feeling better about yourself? For all the product stampedes, it would be nice to hope that women might eventually not just declare that it's a little more complicated than that, but back themselves by hanging on to their money. At the moment, contrary to old proverbs, the business of getting older doesn't seem to be making us any wiser.
Lies, hysteria and contempt. Because we're worth it | Columnists | Guardian Unlimited