Thursday, May 30, 2013

under your skin: i know you understand

love the way michael thompson photographs skin.

i spent the past month thinking rather intensely about skincare - especially, face products for women - and realized how much we actually know without being told.

what i mean is, the codes of skincare (even more so face) for women, are so clearly defined that most women know what means what without ever thinking about it.

so let's think about it.

starting with the setting, which is almost always white.

why white? because we know that white means clean and pure.

but not just any white.

a stark, cold white can mean scientific.

a slightly pinkish white means whitening or brightening products.

white with a splash of lime green or lemon means fresh, clarifying for young girls or young women with spots or pimples. bright orange or slices of citrus means astringent, but a yellowy orange means medicinal - think of the original neutrogena soap, almost the same color as listerine...

white with a watery blue means cool and hydrating.

in print and tv, on billboards or online, skincare products are usually shown against white backgrounds to prove their efficacy. for example, white for clarins, white for clinique, even the legendary creme de la mer is set against white.

more expensive and "natural" products have a little leeway here. they can place their products against celadon green or a color that reminds of you the secret formula of precious, rare ingredients.

the more potent the product - or the more potent it claims to be - the bigger and more important the size of the package on the page or the screen, the more it gleams in the light, and the less likely it is that we need a woman's face nearby to prove anything. the caps of the jars may be gold or brushed steel, but whatever they are, they are solid and reliable.

anti-aging products are the power players in the skincare world. they are prized, sometimes arrogantly so. in every skincare range, anti-aging are the ones that carry the biggest price tags.

we all know that topical anti-aging creams will never compete with surgery, that time can't really be - and probably shouldn't be - reversed but we are constantly seduced. (off-the-record, as someone who has tried and tested absolutely everything, imho only one product on the market works wonders - but not quite the drama or trauma of a facelift).

their serious emotional benefit tends to get anti-aging products careful placement. their glistening packages are advertised on black or purple backgrounds, showcasing their magical fountain-of-youth, now you see it, now you don't abilities.

or they are placed against iridescent rays to show how they transform the dullness of age to the reflective sparkle of youth.

and what about the woman? is her face beside the package, showing the glowing results?

the skincare woman is shot close, so we have the illusion of seeing every perfect poreless inch of skin. she doesn't wear visible make-up so we won't get confused and think she's selling us mascara or lipstick. we pretend it isn't obvious that she is retouched and blown out with light so most of her face isn't really visible. (no one wants to see the martin schoeller version)

generally speaking, the more the woman smiles, the more approachable and friendly she looks, the cheaper the product. if she's a celebrity, the bigger her face is in relationship to the packshot, the more affordable the product is.

the more powerful she looks, the more her chin is lifted and the stronger her gaze, the more expensive and desirable.

for whitening or brightening products, she glows like an incandescent bulb, often touching her cheek to indicate the irresistible softness and delicacy of her skin despite the melanin-stripping benefit of the product.

yet again, the process of stopping aging is where the big guns come out.

the woman, if the excellent hero product allows her to enter the page, is as serious as her skincare regimen. for a prestige (think department store) brand, if our woman smiles, it's a slight upturn to the lips, an expression of self-satisfaction. she's achieved a degree of lifted, airbrushed perfection.

in terms of packaging, anti-aging products wear their colors regally. their jars and bottles of serum are deep reds, deep purples, midnight blues, deep greens - the sober but flattering colors of an elegant woman of a certain age. sometimes, they are steely as surgical equipment but their jars are almost always short, heavy as crystal and serious. the writing on the package may be gold or silver. it's that weighty gravity that makes us trust.

what about other packaging? a smooth, organic shape to the bottle or jar, one that's easy to hold and open, usually means friendliess, a proximity to women.

brands like kiehl's and clinique play with the codes of efficacy by using simple, less adorned packages and photography. their language is straightforward, their images direct as if proving that they are practical, clean and no nonsense.

natural or nonsynthetic brands often use amber glass bottles - both to protect the product - and to remind us how close the ingredients are to herbal apothecaries. or they use fruit or vegetable-colored packages or a green leaf, a tree or vegetable-dye looking inks to remind us of their origins. their language assumes you know the value of nature.

the font or the typeface on the package tells us the price, the level of sophistication of its assumed audience. it tells us if the brand is homey or chic, if it's sleek, high-design (thus hyper-effective) or safely retro. is it a pump, a tube or jar? all those things tell us about price, texture and quality.

for most women, rushing into the department store, or even more stressed, the drugstore, they have to make their decisions on the spur of the moment. between the point of purchase signs, the stuff suddenly on sale, the favorite brand that is out-of-stock, a woman has to be convinced in a few seconds. she has to wade through the intuitive information she's absorbing and choose what she's going to trust on her face.

because we all know, the wrong product on your face can give you a rash, welts, pimples, redness, peeling - basically, destroy your most crucial point of contact with the rest of the world. unlike a bad choice in other areas, unless you wear a niqaab, you can't hide it.

thus, the codes must crystal clear. just like we want our skin to be.

but you already knew that, didn't you?

now, let me ask you to think about something else.

before you buy your product, whether it's prestige (department or specialty store) or mass (drugstore or mass retailer), look at it again. think about all the advertising you've seen for it (if any).

think about the way the package looks, feels and works and what it says to you.

and then ask yourself, does this brand like women?

does this brand back women up, is it a helper of women?

i'm not talking about all the breast cancer walks or pink packaging or any other cause that they throw money at to get our attention.

i'm talking about the core of the brand, the ethos that infuses it.

before you buy the thing that will come closer to you than your most intimate friend or partner, make sure you know how your skincare really feels about you. and your face. and your spirit.

you know the answer.