Justin Bieber fans must have been happy to the max when their beloved appeared at their doors with a cameraperson and a box of acne treatment medication. Whether there was some casting for the most pimple-faced Bieber fan or not, it was an all-round ad campaign launched by Proactiv to promote their anti-acne kit, in which Bieber had yet another of his big moments. He is not the only one, though: at Proactiv, they seem to regard it as a point of honor to film every existing pop star in their advertisements, perhaps alphabetically.
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The history of Proactiv, a line of acne treatments, goes back to 1995 when it was put forth by Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields, certified dermatologists (“Drs. Rodan & Fields: Proactiv” n.pag.). The most widely-known products include their three-step acne solution, as well as a range of other treatments.
There have been several independent medical tests and reviews to check the efficiency of the product. Proactiv uses benzoyl peroxide as an active ingredient, which makes it effective. What Proactiv does is deep-cleanse the skin, which is why it can be suitable for some. It also increases the formation of radicals and redresses the balance of oiliness and dryness. As far as we know, there was a pilot project of a remedy using a combination of benzoyl and amines, which has been proceeded, and the remedy developed in the end even got patented. Nevertheless, even though there are more effective remedies on offer, Proactiv seems to stay the most popular off-the-counter acne treatment. However, the independent reviews refrain from rating the product above similar ones (Burkhart and Burkhart 91).
A possible reason for Proactiv’s popularity is the aggressive advertising that the company uses. Indeed, Proactiv has long been criticized for overusing celebrities in their advertisement campaigns: the ads appear inconsistent with product information, instead of focusing on the details of the pop stars’ lives (Ilicic and Webster 1044). Also, the numbers of customers dissatisfied with Proactiv’s subscription and billing policies run high (“Proactiv: Consumer Complaints & Reviews” n.pag.).
From what we have learned about the Proactiv brand and its advertising tools, it appears that the company has reached its astonishing sales level not so much by the quality of the product by constantly abusing its customers’ lack of judgment. Although the quality of the product and its efficacy for each consumer is hard to estimate without actually purchasing it, Proactiv’s advertising strategies are visibly aggressive and potentially harmful for the customers: the company provides little information about the product’s dermatological qualities and side effects, is known to verbally abuse the customers and overshadow the brand with pop culture images, and, finally, has a pervasive subscription policy that practically forces them to purchase.
The first point of discussion is the dermatological qualities of the product in question and their appearance in the adverts. In the volatility of the contemporary market, the efficiency of a product such as this is critical to maintaining competitiveness. As a consequence, whether and how Proactiv makes a difference is a matter of utmost importance. It would seem logical that to make the consumers aware of the product’s efficacy, the company would want to avail as much useful dermatological data as they could. In reality, the majority of the information is presented on the website (“Drs. Rodan & Fields: Proactiv” n.pag.).
The information concerning the active ingredients is followed by a description of how to use the medication, particularly one of their newer products which are Proactiv+, a three-step kit for daily skincare. As can be seen, the information is carefully filtered. On the one hand, the website seems to provide the potential Proactiv user with the basic knowledge necessary to buy the product and start using it right away. The stories look authentic, although the “before-after” pictures are hardly trustworthy: some lighting tricks and after-touches were probably used to emphasize the treatment effect.
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As to the content itself, apart from the user’s instructions, the site features some advice on what else one can do for healthier skin, e.g., drinking at least 8 cups of water per day and eating healthy. The stories mainly feature ordinary people who claim to have used the treatments and got marvelous results. The website does not urge to buy the product as aggressively as the adverts do; instead, it creates an image of a professional medically approved treatment both through its color selection and the non-persistent contents. On the other hand, the descriptions are mass-oriented, simplified, and somewhat lacking in detail. Warnings about the potential side effects or even allergic reactions are not presented anywhere. Such information gap is specifically disturbing since, as the independent research shows, the main effect of benzoyl peroxide is that it causes dryness, to which some types of skin can develop sensitivity (Burkhart and Burkhart 89). Thus, since the website gives only the basic information and mainly assures the consumers of the miraculous effects of the treatment, its value in informativity is doubtful.
At that, the infomercials, with some minor exceptions, seem to provide the customers with no reliable information whatsoever. The only video advert that was more or less structured was the one featuring Nicole Scherzinger, as well as some other pop stars and ordinary consumers (Proactiv UK). From that, the consumer learns about the Smart-target technology that cleanses pores and follicles to eliminate and prevent acne. Disappointingly, the information is presented in a cartoonish way, and then again, not a second of this ad is devoted to warning the customers.
Consequently, the potential product user has a decision to make. For one, they can choose to rely on the ads and the website and hope the medication will not damage their skin. Another solution would be to make some additional research about the ingredients and possible complications. The information that is presented on the Web has to be critically thought over. For example, a long-term Proactiv user states that, aside from bleaching her linen and face towels, the product has seriously damaged her skin (Schwartz par. 10). The product can, thus, be unsuitable for some skin types, but neither the website nor the infomercials mention the possibility of it. As a result, the company – either unintentionally or deliberately – does not consider informing their customers of an advert strategy option, which is not only unfair but downright dangerous.
The advertisement techniques used by Proactiv also make up for a critical point of discussion. The role of advertising seems to be fully understood by the company’s PR agents but, as it was said, the company does not consider packing their ads with competent medical facts, as other companies would probably do. It is true, to keep up the customer flow, Proactiv invests in the product development but the new technologies are seldom to be seen in the ads; instead, the company is known to have used psychological and verbal abuse of the customers and is currently overusing pop culture to market the brand. Such a strategy cannot be regarded as Proactiv’s know-how; the unicity of Proactiv’s advertising seems to be in its pervasiveness and blatancy.
Since it first entered the market in the 90s, Proactiv has considerably evolved. Back then, the company did not experience the competition it has to face today and did not have to stand out with its advertising. There is some evidence that, in the past, Proactiv’s ads were product-oriented rather than consumer-oriented (Oltmanns par. 1). Such a strategy might seem justified. On the other hand, over time, the company has learned to position its brand through a multitude of unethical subsets mainly due to the increased competition. The first sprigs of such behavior can be seen in some of Proactiv’s earlier adverts. Consider, for instance, the one that features a picture of three Proactiv medication bottles and a header that runs: “Got Acne? Just ask your boyfriend what to do. Oh, that’s right, you don’t have a boyfriend.” (Oltmanns n.pag.).
To us, the advertisement has come as a shock because of its blatancy and the obnoxious belittlement of the customers. In addition to imposing the biased values (that everyone should have a partner; that not having a partner is shameful; that it is impossible to find a partner for a person with acne), the company exploited the customers’ self-esteem to increase sales. At the same time, references to dermatologic appraisement and skin-treatment qualities are nowhere to be seen. At that, the effectiveness of the ad seems to lie in its cruelty (Oltmanns, par. 2). But the impudence of the message striking raw teenage nerves and furthering the inferiority complex is astounding and inexcusable.
It might be the case that Proactiv has ceased to create ads such as this to avoid potential criticism. However, after the company has started overusing celebrities for their advertisements, another storm of critique broke out. To market the brand, the company has employed, at varying times, stars like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Nicole Scherzinger, Adam Levine, and others (Proactiv; Proactiv UK). Celebrities might enjoy cooperating with a brand of such scope but when they are used that abundantly, they tend to confuse as to the brand itself, outshine the brand by their images, and prove to be ineffective as an advertising tool for those customers who dislike their performance. The infomercials that they feature are supposed to both inform and sell the product, with the customers relying on the viewpoint of an authority represented by the pop stars. The company wants the celebrities’ best and most valuable qualities to be attributed to the product so that the customer learns to recognize a celebrity by the product they advertise and vice versa.
What happens has to do with advertising psychology, mainly with the concepts of eclipsing and overshadowing (Tanaka, Nguyen, and Romaniuk 69). The ads appear inconsistent with product information, instead of focusing on the details of the pop stars’ lives. As a result, what is supposed to be an infomercial sounds more like a call to action (that is, purchase) or the stars’ philosophizing about the hardships they face at work.
Consequently, in such adverts, the figure of a celebrity leaves the product as an afterthought – and, which is more, overshadowing does not always work. True, for an Adam Levine fan, the ad featuring the favorite singer could be an instant motivation to run to the nearest kiosk and buy the product. On the other hand, research shows that there is no critical difference between the product that is celebrity-advertised as opposed to regular ones. Thus, what can be seen from Proactiv’s advertising strategies is the belittlement of the consumers in the past, as well as the abuse of pop culture at present, which shatters the credibility of the ads and casts doubt upon the product’s quality.
Proactiv keeps its customers in the dark about the possible effects and at the same time blinds them with the (pop) starlight, but there is still more to it. The self-proclaimed best-selling skin medication could have gained its astonishing sales rates partly because there are a plethora of video testimonials on YouTube and elsewhere. In those videos, the happy customers – whether real or not – swear they have gotten the vibrant complexion and acne-free skin as it was advertised. But it only takes to google “Proactiv scam” to encounter another heaping pile of testimonials, which are not at all rosy and shiny.
Just like any other blue-chip company, Proactiv uses subscription and shipment policies to deliver their products to the customers’ doors. As it turns out, the subscription is very hard to cancel. It is worth taking a look at the Proactiv page at ConsumerAffairs website. By the end of March 2016, the amount of reviews has reached 501 and the average rating is one star out of five (“Proactiv: Consumer Complaints & Reviews,” n.pag.). Scrolling down the reviews, one might see that it is not the quality of the products that deserve the brand its poor ratings; in fact, practically none of the dissatisfied customers mention their acne experience. Rather, such results are the consequence of the perseverance with which Proactiv ships the products and charges their customers’ accounts without the customers knowing.
With minor differences, the stories run in approximately the same fashion. People are lured into supply subscriptions, assured that they will be receiving a free kit to try and will be able to cancel it at any time. Soon after the subscription, some random charges start to appear, and the products may be delivered on time, or late, or not arrive at all. If the customers ever try to cancel it, the persons on the phone force them to run through some bureaucracy, then claim to have never received the cancellation affidavits, then apologize and state they do not know why the subscription has not yet been canceled.
They promise to fix the problem – and the customers’ bank accounts are still charged. Some customers mention exceptionally unassertive and rude service and even wonder if they perhaps purposefully train their employees not to take no for an answer. As a result, they have to make numerous phone calls to try to put an end to the monthly charges for products they did not want in the first place. Some of the customers testify to have deleted their credit cards; others claim they have been struggling with the unwanted shipping and charging for several years and doubt the legality of the practice as such (“Proactiv: Consumer Complaints & Reviews,” n.pag.).
The confusion might be the result of several factors. First off, when ordering from Guthy Renker, which is the distribution company cooperating with Proactiv, the customer gets an automatic sigh-up and becomes a club member. What is meant is that the company will ship the products and charge the customer’s credit card until the customer cancels the membership. Second, the membership cannot be canceled via the Proactiv website. To stop the shipments, one has to make phone calls which provide no guarantee that the membership will be canceled. The irony is that some of the customers – the ones whose skin condition has improved after using Proactiv medication – would have probably bought more Proactiv after a trial if the product had not been continuously shoved down their throat. Thus, the aggressiveness of Proactiv advertisement might not be considered a problem if it were not for the crooked billing practices, for one, and seem to operate on the fringes of the law.
Summary of Opposing Views
The viewpoints on Proactiv generally tend to take two opposing poles that are not quite compatible with each other. On the one side of it, there are a plethora of positive YouTube reviews from the happy customers who demonstrate how they apply Proactiv+ on their faces, a smile on the web camera, and recommend the medication to anyone interested. On the other side, there are independent bloggers and quality newspaper columnists who generously criticize the brand, the policies, and celebrity endorsement. The public opinion is, thus, either concerned with the product (which tends to receive an appraisal from the reviewers) and the strategies (which are subject to criticism).
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Considering that our primary focus was the ad strategy, it was quite complicated to find any comments that would speak well of the brand’s pervasiveness and pop culture abuse. One such opinion was expressed in a short article published on an advertising-related website, which considered Proactiv strategy – mainly the celebrity usage – “a thing of beauty” (“Proactiv’s Creative Strategy” par. 1). The article acknowledges that Proactiv has gathered its constellation of pop stars to advertise their product. On the other hand, whoever the author of the article is, their view on such tactics is mostly optimistic. It is stated that Proactiv humanizes those who might otherwise appear larger than life and reveals the unfeigned, off-the-screen side of them.
The atmosphere in which the stars are filmed emphasizes the fact that they are just as human as the potential viewer. What is still more important is that the celebrities themselves testify their self-consciousness and insecurity when it comes to acne. As a result, the public learns that, behind the hype and fame, celebrities are ordinary people who also suffer from zits and breakouts. Considering that acne is generally shamed and tabooed, the article argues that such strategy helps gain the consumers’ trust and empower them to struggle with their acne, no pun intended, proactively, regarding the celebrities as a positive example.
Another positive feature enlisted in this article is how effectively the company combines the pop stars’ fame and status and their skin improvement in the adverts. The result of the treatment is exemplified by the celebrities’ unblemished, touchable faces, which can be regarded as a part of the branding policy. Thus, the article states that such a strategy helps the customers relate to celebrities and trust their experience.
As it were, we have already presented some research findings that do not confirm the efficacy of celebrity endorsement. The public’s indifference may come as a result of the cluttered competition of brands that are present in the global market. Too much choice produces an inevitable decrease in demand, and the strategies deployed by the competing companies become more aggressive – and therefore, more visible to the customer. When a strategy is tangible and obtrusive, it is subconsciously rejected. Besides, due to the lack of consistency in the infomercials, the pop stars’ personalities sometimes overshadow the brand itself, as is often the case with Proactiv.
More importantly, there is something utterly troubling with the underlying pathos of the adverts. The images of pop stars (youngish, eccentric, and, above all, wealthy and successful) seem to be associated with their vibrant, zit-free skin, obviously achieved by using Proactiv. The ideas of success and good skin are equalized, and the value that ordinary people attribute to these concepts is brutally exploited as follows. First, the consumer is convinced that the main components of happiness are wealth and success. Success is then directly associated with physical beauty, which, to acne sufferers, consists of better skin condition. As the ads impose, the only way to good skin is by using Proactiv, which is the key component of this equation.
The downside of it is that the consumers who would otherwise be whole and satisfied with their lives are prone to feel ugly. The effect was seen back in the 90s, with Proactiv’s ads ruthlessly mocking their female customers for not having a boyfriend due to their acne; the company has changed the strategy, but the effect can be still seen, to-date. The idea that some people can be just as happy with their acne is quite out of the question: the ads’ goal is to persuade the consumers to take action, that is, to make them feel ugly enough to take action. Such behavior cannot be deemed “creative” or even entirely ethical, which certainly speaks to the disfavor of Proactiv as a brand.
To conclude, Proactiv, just as any acne treatment, might work for some and prove useless and even dangerous for others, which is only natural. The troubling part of it is that the advertising strategy does not leave any space for the consumers to judge, maintaining that acne is the cause of all their troubles and using aggressive techniques to market the product. The fact that the customers’ minds are plugged with pop culture and the product is forced into their hands by inadequate subscription and charge policies goes to show that the company might be not as caring about their customer’s happiness as they advertise.
The issue is pressing primarily because the product concerns skin health. Lack of generally accessible information can cause serious harm, both dermatological and psychological, which would certainly take more than Katy Perry’s open-hearted testimonials to fix up.
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“Proactiv: Consumer Complaints & Reviews.” Consumer Affairs. Consumers Unified LLC, 2016. Web.
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Schwartz, Justine Ingersoll. “I Didn’t Realize How Bad Proactiv Was for My Skin Until I Stopped Using It.” SheFinds. Mode Media, 2014. Web.
Tanaka, Aoi, Cathy Nguyen, and Jenni Romaniuk. “The Strengths and Weaknesses of Celebrities as Branding and Creative Design Elements in Advertising.” Journal of Design, Business & Society 1.1 (2015): 57-75. Print.