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Beauty Vulnerability: What Got Lost in Translation

Author of controversial PHD study explains its goal

Once when I was in high school more than half of my chemistry class failed a lab test. The next day our teacher apologized to us, saying that if so many of us misinterpreted the material, then clearly he didn’t explain it properly. 

As I’ve read the interpretations and reactions to the PHD survey that was featured in Adweek’s Sept. 30 Data Points section, I’ve come to the same conclusion about the study that I authored. So I’d like to break down the elements that combined to produce the recent press coverage.

Our goal in identifying the days, times and situations that women feel their most and least attractive was driven by the understanding that when marketers are trying to connect with women on so personal an issue as beauty and appearance, the standard insight of right time/right message doesn’t suffice—you must also understand what might be the wrong time and message as well. The results showed us that there are appropriate times to have a conversation about beauty products and not so appropriate times—the latter being those days and occasions when women feel most vulnerable about their beauty.

And there’s the word that ignited people’s passions, vulnerable. Looking back, I can see that using the words “vulnerable” and “marketing” in the same sentence was pretty much an open invitation for misinterpretation.

Contrary to what has been suggested, however, the study does not advocate exploiting women’s vulnerability about their looks. As a both a marketing professional and an activist in women’s issues, my focus has always been on supporting, encouraging and empowering women. So had the study in fact been suggesting that marketers exploit women when they feel their least attractive, not only would I have understood the outrage, I would have shared it and probably helped fuel it.

However, as the full press release on the study confirms, our recommendation to marketers is the polar opposite of exploitation. In fact, we suggest that marketers have an opportunity to help mitigate negative moments in time and build a more meaningful relationship with women—with messages about feeling smart, successful, organized and accomplished during times when a standard beauty conversation just isn’t appropriate.

And when it is appropriate, don’t make it all about looks—reinforce positive moments with messages that celebrate multiple aspects of a woman’s life, including friends, travel and social activities.

Kim Bates is the Head of Brand Planning for PHD USA, and the founder of THE WSDM, an empowerment salon for NY women.

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