Dr Parneet Sehmi argues why brands and cosmetic clinics need to more carefully consider the language they use in advertising
In December, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned an advert by an aesthetic manufacturer citing misleading and exaggerated earning claims for clinics it was selling its products to.1 A quick flick around the advertising watchdog’s website shows that this incident is far from isolated in the aesthetic and cosmetic industry – hyperbolic claims in advertising are rife.2,3,4
Although this recent example impacted clinics, the public are frequently the ones to be targeted with inflated marketing claims around beauty and cosmetic services. Brands have often faced criticism for feeding into unattainable ideals of attractiveness, promoting products and treatments in a way that suggests they can achieve the idea of ‘perfection’. At first glance, it may look like the industry revolves around image and videos rather than words when it comes to marketing, but I find the type of language used is often the main component in the creation of misleading advertising. As regulated medical professionals, I believe we have a responsibility to ensure we are ethically advertising our services and being transparent with the public about what our products and treatments can achieve. However, in my view, many businesses are falling short. So, what is the problem and what should aesthetic practitioners be doing to improve the advertising landscape in our sector?
One of the strengths of the advertising industry lies in its ability to transform mundane objects into highly desirable products. Often, this is done well, for example, saying the product is ‘perfect for adding light volume, boosting hydration and enhancing your smile’. However, some companies in our sector are exaggerating the efficacy of their products or treatments. Statements such as ‘you’re just one click away from changing your skin forever’ have been picked up by the ASA2 because as we know, they aren’t realistic – improving skin takes time and a dedicated treatment plan using many modalities. A quick look on social media provides more examples: ‘turn back the clock 20 years with one treatment’, ‘get the lift nobody else can get with our superior techniques’, and ‘we can make your face beautiful’, to name a few.
In aesthetic marketing, there are often misleading adjectives used that imply consumers will be more physically attractive – especially to the opposite sex. Hyperbole is a facet of advertising in every medium, and we are still seeing ads that promise to bestow upon the user super strength, blinding-white teeth, pain-free results, and an uncanny ability to attract men/women. This gives our patients unrealistic, and false, expectations of what they can expect following a treatment. Therefore, using this exaggerated kind of advertising shows that the cosmetic products that perpetuate the idea of a ‘perfect’ body use women’s low self-esteem against them. With so many brands, clinics and companies using hyperbolic language that could be considered false advertising, it seems many are unaware of (or choosing to ignore) the rules that the ASA has in place. As such, it is imperative that all practitioners ensure they are well educated on the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) code6 which is enforced by the ASA, and regularly keep updated so as not to mislead patients. It’s also worth noting that this will help protect your own reputation and career. I also believe we have a responsibility to report any company who are misleading patients in this way to the ASA.
Instead of selling a dream through words your patients want to hear, I believe the aesthetics industry should advertise reliable information that leads to better and more informed decision-making about cosmetic products and treatments. In its marketing code, the CAP and ASA states that marketing communications must not mislead consumers by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product.6 Thus, if practitioners are making an advertising claim which goes beyond a simple cosmetic effect for the product, they should use sufficient evidence to support it. For example, practitioners should reference moisturising products having the potential ability to plump the top layers of skin with moisture, thereby reducing the appearance of wrinkles, rather than completely removing wrinkles altogether. It is important for practitioners to focus on the cosmetic effect of the product on consumers in general, suppressed by data-led science.
At my clinic, we ensure to use honest and objective statements when referencing the efficacy of aesthetic treatments. For example, in our social media we will explicitly state something like: ‘treatment is subject to a medical consultation. As hyaluronic acid dermal fillers are not a permanent treatment, the effects will wear off over time, so it’s recommended that the procedure is repeated every five to six months for effective results’. This creates trust between me and my patients, and also means they don’t come to the clinic with unrealistic expectations. Trust is extremely important for all practitioners across the aesthetics specialty because we are dealing with public health. When patients believe that they are receiving the best, most reliable treatment from an honest, professional and trustworthy practitioner, they are likely to come back again and recommend it to their family and friends.
Consider your marketing language
Advertising and marketing language is a powerful tool which can really impact people’s decision making – for the good or the bad. The language of cosmetic brands has a particularly emotive importance for consumers, and small and subtle differences can make a tangible difference. A new language — one that is thoughtful and trustworthy — should be our aim to ensure transparent messages are delivered to the public.
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