You couldn’t make it up

I’ve been duped. Fooled, deceived — nay, robbed. Or so newspapers would have you believe. Two weeks ago, I bought a mascara. I was in one of the pharmacy chains, choosing from about 14-million different mascaras, and I was with my children, whose patience with shops that don’t sell Lego is non-existent. I saw a rack of L’Oreal Telescopic mascara, grabbed one and paid without pausing.

This was, of course, the very mascara that, it now transpires, was promoted with misleading advertising. L’Oreal this week admitted that Penelope Cruz’s impressively long and lush lashes, shown in magnificent close-up on the television advert for Telescopic mascara, were in fact augmented not just with mascara but with false eyelashes.

Now, try as I might to reconstruct a mental picture of the scene in which (it now seems) I was fleeced, I can’t even remember whether there was a picture of Penelope Cruz in the store. What I do clearly remember is that, prior to having bought this mascara, I had seen the television advert for it, in which Cruz flutters a pair of the most obviously fake eyelashes since Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

I distinctly remember thinking, as the advert staked the claim that the mascara would make lashes appear up to 60% longer, that the lashes were obviously fake, and that the 60% claim was technically impossible.

Yet I went into a store and bought the product nonetheless. Which could, I suppose, be taken as evidence that I have been brainwashed by the advertising industry.

But here’s the thing: it’s a good mascara. I still don’t look anything like Cruz, but it hadn’t occurred to me to be outraged about this.

The L’Oreal revelation is the latest in a string of cases in which beauty companies have been forced to retract some of their more outlandish claims.

Last year, Procter and Gamble was rapped for a commercial that claimed Head and Shoulders would leave hair ‘100% dandruff-free”. When challenged, the company modified its claim, saying it meant that regular use of the shampoo would make it impossible to spot flakes of dandruff from 60cm. In 2005, both L’Oreal and Estee Lauder were made to retract some of the more far-fetched claims made for anti-cellulite creams.

What these clashes between advertisers and consumers reflect is that the disconnection between the women on the billboards and those on the pavement below is wider than it has ever been. Plastic surgery and digital retouching have enabled image-makers to reach new standards of ‘perfection”; paradoxically, this means that benchmarks of beauty are being moved ever further out of the reach of real women.

The effect of this has been to spin consumers in opposing directions.

Overexposure to images of physical perfection has led some women to ever more unrealistic expectations of the transformative power of creams and cosmetics. As a result, the very language of beauty advertising has become extreme. Skin is no longer improved, but ‘perfected”; blemishes are no longer concealed, but ‘erased”. In an attempt to lend credibility to these momentous claims, the advertisers have invented a language of lab-babble that does not always stand up to scrutiny.

You see, if the advertisers think they are fooling us, they are kidding themselves. What I find more offensive than the adverts themselves is the underlying notion that women who buy mascara are innocent fools who must be protected from the dastardly plotting of the advertisers. When you’ve been using mascara since you were 14, as most women have, you know perfectly well what it can and can’t do. To assume anything else is, frankly, insulting. —

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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