Hair Product Marketing, Online Beauty Communities, and Curly Hair

Shampoo labels are really, really frustrating. The label of a shampoo or conditioner tends to have the following structure: the label will list a desired effect for the product, or a problem with hair that the product aims to remedy, and then may also provide a special ingredient that causes the desired effect. Take a look at the below labels:

Each label follows the above structure. Respectively, each product claims to smooth hair, repair split ends, or protect hair colour, and then mentions an ingredient. The wording of the label is very interesting here. Each label presents the desired effect of the product, and presents the special ingredient right next to this. But what the label doesn’t do is use a construction such as ‘with argan oil FOR long-lasting colour’, or ‘with marula oil FOR smoother hair’.

This unusual wording persists across manufacturers. In each case, the product manufacturer is being very careful about making specific claims about the efficacy of these special ingredients at achieving the stated aim of the product.

The labels are careful about the wording of the marketing of these special ingredients because for many of them, there is little or no evidence to suggest that these special ingredients achieve the desired aim of the product. Argan oil is one of the most common ingredients marketed in this way, but despite its popularity not very much research has been done to establish its efficacy at improving hair health or appearance (Gavazzoni Dias, 2015). Understanding the efficacy of other, more obscure additives is even more difficult, with even less research having been done. This is not even taking into account ambiguous language like ‘pomegranate essences’.

The ingredients contained within hair products that are not mentioned on the front label are the ingredients that do the bulk of the work of the product. As such, the decision-making factors most relevant to a purchasing decision are de-emphasised in product marketing. So, the consumer standing in the hair products aisle is in a difficult epistemic position. Hair product marketing is misleading, potentially intentionally so.

It is not at all clear that beauty product manufacturers have the incentive to provide the consumer with a product that actually works. A consumer that is constantly dissatisfied is more likely to buy more and different kinds of hair product. A consumer that is satisfied with the way that they look is likely to buy less - this also explains why beauty marketing often aims to damage the self esteem of consumers.

It will be unsurprising to learn then, that there are internet communities devoted to deciphering hair product labels, and figuring out which ingredients have which effects. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the ‘/r/curlyhair’ section of the popular news and discussion website ‘Reddit’, although there are similar communities on other social networks such as Instagram and Youtube. Reddit forums - called ‘subreddits’ - have a specific structure. They are run by community members, as opposed to site administrators or private industry, and importantly they work on a voting system. If a community member thinks that a post or comment is insightful or helpful, they can ‘upvote’ a post, and if they find the post or comment unhelpful they can ‘downvote’ it. The posts with the most upvotes sit at the top of the page, and as such are viewed by more people, and the posts with the most downvotes sink to the bottom out of view.

This structure provides a space for people to challenge two things: firstly, community members attempt to isolate the effects of specific ingredients in hair products so as to see through misleading marketing, and secondly to challenge beauty norms surrounding hair texture. The structure of the site allows these judgements to be made and adjudicated on democratically. I mentioned above that there is little evidence supporting the inclusion of many additive ingredients in hair products. Curly-hair focused communities on the internet tend to focus not on additive ingredients, but instead on the functional ingredients in hair products. These include surfactants, like sodium laureth sulfate, and smoothing agents such as silicones.

Take the following post as an example. In response to a request for a product recommendation, a community member responds: “I think the Biolage Styling Thermal Active Spray by Matrix would work for you. It contains the water-soluble silicone peg-14 dimethicone.” Posts such as this use community knowledge to see past the marketing of hair products, and focus on the active ingredients.

The reason that these communities are specifically for people with curly hair, is that active ingredients in hair products work differently depending on hair texture. Sodium laureth sulfate and silicones often produce the desired effect for straight hair, but not for curly hair. The shampoos make no mention of this, assuming the customer has straight hair. As with so many beauty norms, the norm for straight hair is taken so much for granted that products do not take into account that there are people that do not meet it.

It is in this way that online beauty communities can act as sites of resistance to beauty norms. This is particularly interesting as beauty norms regarding hair are so racialised. The community structure not only lets the community express their approval of the reporting of natural facts about hair products, but also promote curly hair as something desirable or beautiful. Community members share pictures of their hair ‘progress’, and encourage each other. In the case of reddit subforums, community approval can even be expressed in a definite number - the number of upvotes.

Hair product marketing is so confusing that there are entire communities set up to decipher it. Beauty product manufacturers have inadvertently created sites of resistance to their marketing campaigns. It will be interesting to see the growth of democratic beauty-product communities in the future, as people find out new ways to organise and share information. We may see beauty product manufacturers suffer the effects of this.

Kash Sunghuttee is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. His research sits at the intersection between political epistemology and social metaphysics, and explores the ways in which people's first-hand knowledge of their lives can contribute towards better political decision making. 

Gavazzoni Dias M. F. (2015). Hair cosmetics: an overview. International journal of trichology7(1), 2–15. doi:10.4103/0974-7753.153450


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