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Are cosmetics ads subtly telling women they are flawed and require fixing?

24th December 2016

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A lot has been made of how airbrushed images in cosmetics advertising campaigns are setting beauty standards that are biologically impossible. But does that apply to the language used in the ads as well?

A linguist from the University of Portsmouth believes the choice of words might also play a subliminal role in encouraging women to see themselves as “flawed and needing to be fixed”.

Helen Ringrow, a lecturer in Communication Studies and Applied Linguistics, says the underlying theme in advertisements for women’s cosmetics was the constant need to fix problems including dry hair, lack of glow and poor skin.

Woman wearing make-up.
Are cosmetics ads encouraging women to feel flawed? (Thinkstock)

She said: “The language used tells women their faces, hair and bodies are always falling below some imaginary standard. It makes women feel they’re never quite measuring up, never quite right.

“It also creates problems we never knew we had, such as selling us deodorant which makes our underarm skin tone appear more even.”

She says the multi-billion pound beauty industry “thrives on making women’s bodies appear to be a flawed commodity which cosmetics can fix”.

As part of her research, Ringrow studied more than 400 beauty ads in Cosmopolitan and Elle magazines over a six-month period in 2011.

She noted subtle linguistic differences in tone and language in French and English advertisements but the underlying messages were similar.

Ringrow said: “The advertisements tell women that their bodies need endless work and that they are not quite good enough without the use of cosmetics.”

Helen Ringrow.
Helen Ringrow and her new book The Language of Cosmetics Advertising (Palgrave)

She also added the advertising also relied heavily on scientific language, saying: “Women are bombarded by a cocktail of scientific words, sex and youthfulness in cosmetics advertising.

“You’ll find bold claims for the power of something scientific-sounding, like peptides or bio-proteins, which are not always proven, especially not in the small quantities in which they are found in many cosmetics products.”

Ringrow has revealed the results of her research in a book titled The Language of Cosmetics Advertising, published by Palgrave.

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