They’re Still Prettier Than Us

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CVS is going to make sure the products it sells aren’t promoted with images that have been “materially” altered. It’s a great start.

The announcement earlier this month read, in part: “We want our beauty aisle to be a place where our customers can always come to feel good, while representing and celebrating the authenticity and diversity of the communities we serve.”

CVS is going to put a logo on products it deems authentic.

The draw for most products sold at drug stores has always been aspirational; we want salves and lotions that make us look younger and healthier, even if those benefits are only skin deep. The driving tenet of consumer marketing generally is to show us examples of people doing and enjoying things that we want to do, too.

Millennials aren’t buying into these promises as willingly as prior generations, and I think four truths warrant their continued skepticism:

First, models in marketing imagery look better rolling out of bed in the morning than we do after spending hours pulling ourselves together. It’s why they’re models and we’re not, so using beautiful people to sell stuff is still showing us unrealistic images and promoting unreachable expectations.

Second, have you ever noticed that people in ads don’t look like they actually needthe stuff they’re selling, like TV moms who feign exasperation with “busy” situations that normally harried moms would consider opportunities for catching a nap, or good-looking couples who hawk ED medications?

Third, how is it that all the people who drink beer in ads are skinny? Same goes for most snack and fast food marketing. It’s like the physics of cause and effect are suspended.

Fourth, most consumer marketing exists in an idealized world wherein everything works, and everyone can do anything. So digital personal assistants never hear “muesli” when people say “music,” people always get beaches to themselves at resorts (and can always see rock artists perform at standing room only concerts), and buying a grammar app helps anyone write a novel while riding the subway.

So the problem with authenticity in consumer marketing goes far beyond photoshopping good looking people so they look too good; it’s simply built into the very premise upon which most marketing is based, and leads to the same implicit promises of guilt and effort-free beauty and happiness that brands can’t possibly keep.

The company deserves a lot of credit for trying to improve things for consumers, not just with its new image rule, but for banning cigarettes in 2014. CVS has recently bought an insurance company, even further demonstrating that it’s a disruptor in its industry.

But it’s only a start. The people featured on consumer product packages and in marketing campaigns will still look better than we do, even once CVS has certified them as authentic.

And shoppers will continue to be skeptical.

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