Sexy Science? The New Glam of Science in Advertising

By Chris Mooney | June 10, 2011 9:37 am

This is a guest post by Dr. Jeffrey H. Toney, an educator and scientist whose career has spanned academia and the pharmaceutical industry, and currently serves as the dean of the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences at Kean University. He blogs regularly at ScienceBlogsNJ VoicesOpEdNews and The Huffington Post.

Sex sells…but can science?  Grabbing a consumer’s attention using sex goes beyond branding.  In fact:

…sex is an inherent, inseparable brand message. It is the message.

Scientific messages are becoming increasingly apparent in advertisements, whether as claims of health benefits (“clinically proven”) or trumpeting a “scientific breakthrough” displayed, inexplicably, by showing chemical structures or dramatic hi-tech animations.  This is a curious schizophrenia.  On the one hand, the public is often disinterested and skeptical of scientific claims, often confusing facts with opinions.  Evolution and climate change are obvious examples.

Coverage of science in the news media has declined dramatically:

“For every five hours of cable news, less than a minute is devoted to science; 46 percent of Americans reject evolution and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old; the number of newspapers with weekly science sections has shrunken by two-thirds over the past several decades.”

On the other hand, use of science within advertising somehow bestows upon the product a higher status, a gravitas, the excitement that this thing that the consumer must have is one of a kind, a rare breakthrough discovery.  More perplexing is the way that science is presented in these ads – as something mysterious (chemical structures fly across the screen), as something utterly confusing to the non-scientist.

Consider the L’Oreal Paris Youth Code Collection. An article in The New York Times heralded that “L’Oreal Paris Cracks the Code”–presumably referring to genetic code. The commercial:

“Specially formulated with Biolysat, Adenosine and enhanced with peptides, the Youth Code GenActiv TECHNOLOGY™ targets the repair gene and enhances its ability to regenerate under stress.”

What is Biolysat?  What is adenosine?  A “repair gene”? {Most people know what a gene is, but what is it repairing?}  What does it mean to “target” a gene?  Doesn’t that sound dangerous?

It gets worse:

“Biolysat works to activate the expression of the repair gene while Adenosine, a molecule that is naturally found in skin cells’ DNA and acts as an anti-wrinkle ingredient, helps stimulate DNA and protein synthesis.”

What is “activate the expression of the repair gene”?  “Stimulate DNA and protein synthesis?  An astute non-scientist could interpret this as something harmful.  After all, don’t cancer cells grow rapidly, making more DNA and more protein?

My focus here is not to debunk the scientific claims behind these statements.  That would be relatively easy, requiring no more than a few hours exploring the scientific and medical literature coming from the Saint-Louis Hospital Skin Research Institute in Paris, the home base of these products.  Instead, I wonder what led the marketers to decide to use such representation of science in their advertising.  Certainly they did market research that supports the approach.

So how could the same public be attracted and engaged by science in advertising but remain skeptical and generally apathetic towards science?  Exploring this requires a deep understanding of sociology, psychology and even neurology – just to get started.  Like any worthwhile scientific research project, this opens up many more questions for exploration.  I can’t wait.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Guest Posts

Comments (10)

Links to this Post

  1. Selling stuff for your genes - Genomes Are Us | June 10, 2011
  1. Dr. Toney:

    Great subject.

    I have been examining this phenomena of using science as a marketing ploy but in a different setting – that of amateur paranormal investigation groups. They use both jargon and equipment as symbols of science. It works. The public thinks they are credible researchers.

    Philosopher Susan Haack says “scientific” is used honorifically as “an all-purpose term of epistemic praise meaning ‘strong, reliable, good’”. The “honorific usage” of science is common in our society and “promotes inappropriate mimicry,” and an “uncritical attitude” towards science.

    The manner, language and procedure of science are imitated by others in order to appear complicated and credible. The public finds cues that suggest a source is knowledgeable and the message is reliable. Sciencey-ness suggests sophistication and expertise.

    Advertisers appeal to these consumer heuristics by use of scientific jargon and images. Apparently, this sciencey magic stamp was used by charlatans back in the 20th century to sell products. So, it’s not new and still works.

    I recommend Science Talk by Daniel Patrick Thurs and Conjuring Science by Christopher Toumey as good reads on this topic.

  2. I see no paradox and certainly have no idea what a knowledge of “neurology” offers to understanding the phenomena.

    Part of your failure in this analysis may be to assume that it is “the same public” without recognizing that these products are perhaps being targeted toward those persons who are not apathetic toward science.

    But I think that more likely there is a major difference between being “engaged in science” and “respecting the authority of the lab coat”. I think that most people do the latter and do not do the former, but that scientists tend to confuse the two.

    Although Science holds authority over knowledge in our society, it is simply one knowledge authority. For society, Scientific knowledge is simply one of many tools and sources of authority that one can rely on. If Science supports your position, you invoke it. If it does not, you reject it and utilize an alternative knowledge authority (religion, “common sense”, tradition).

  3. Aklıselim

    Ah, the answer is stupidity. People are so stupid to drool on science when it is in its “bogus” form in ads, and shrug when it is in its original form, well, in pretty much everywhere.

  4. John

    If you can sell a fraud like Climate Change with sexy science credentials, why not toothpaste?

  5. Geack

    This isn’t that complicated – people who don’t particularly give a crap about science still understand science is valuable, and accept it as long as it doesn’t contradict their current desires. And you should make a distinction between scientific and “sciency”; all the hair-care stuff is clearly the latter. It’s not like people are going to salons to compare the raw data from all these “studies”. If you’re trying to decide how to spend your money, it’s reassuring to think you’re buying a product from a serious company who really cares about how their products work, and loading up a shampoo bottle with a bunch of incomprehensible sciency language is a cheap easy way to convey that message. John Paul Mitchell and Nexxium started all the sciency stuff in haircare 25 years ago and made a killing; since then it’s just been everyone following suit.

    As to the public “apathy” about science, it’s actually more of a credibility gap, and it mainly applies to very big, complicated issues that can be influenced by political or religious factors. It’s not hard for someone with no interest in science to imagine how a scientist could determine, say, which motor oil lasts longest. That’s a concrete test that people can at least vaguely picture for themselves, and they’re happy to accept the data when making decisions. It’s much tougher for a person to develop a mental image of climate modeling, or of the type of research that allows us to know what animal ate what plant a million years ago. The lack of understanding leaves plenty of room for doubt and influence from competing sources of info.

  6. Jay Fox

    Its those “competing sources of info” that are part of the problem. With information coming at us from all angles, just who do you believe? Especially when confronted with conflicting information.

    “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” That’s the problem. Anyone can dress up as a scientist, play the part, and tell you anything. And if it’s on TV, well, it must be true, no?

    A lot of people do not enjoy reading and would rather someone else did and then told them what they learned. Preferably someone they know. If they see someone regularly on the tube, they think they know them and will believe what is said by them. Advertisers know this. That’s why all the celebrity endorsements.

    We need another Carl Sagan. A scientist willing to get out in the open regularly and make their name familiar. With that familiarity will come credibility, deserved or not. It is how the system works, and science needs to get on board and work the system.

  7. Mary

    Did you see the Jeep ad that was offering a “genetically engineered” Jeep offspring? I was stunned actually. We discussed it here:

  8. I’m reminded of the x-ray shoe sizing machines of the 40s and 50s, the recent magnet craze, and other forms of quackery. The issue isn’t that people don’t want to accept science; they simply want science to validate themselves, their desires and hopes.

    It’s a matter of priorities. And it’s nothing new, or corpse medicine, lead-based face creams and removing ribs to achieve a wasp-like waist would never have survived past a few individuals.

  9. oh, and what in the world does “neurology” (or even neuroscience) have to offer in this discussion? I certainly don’t see it.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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