Today I realised science is everywhere in the media. In one hour of watching Ellen (don’t judge me) I counted 8 different commercials where science was attempting to be communicated. You know the ads I’m describing. The ones that have the new, amazing, scientifically formulated “miracle ingredient” and there is usually some scientific validity to these claims. But does this advertising improve consumer understanding of the science that is behind these “miracle ingredients” or just make them skeptical of the science?
Lets first have a look at one of the commercials I’m referring to.
So what is the science in this commercial? Well, it is true that high concentrations of oxygen increase cell metabolism and improve cellular function. What the ad doesn’t tell you is that to get these high concentrations a person must be exposed to oxygen levels at 4 times the concentration of that in air. Which isn’t really possible in a tiny tube of moisturizer.
So the science is a bit iffy, and to top it off, these “miracle ingredients” are in such small doses that they won’t have much more of an effect than the base ingredients that are contained in all products of the same type. It’s not lying (as there are strict regulations against that), it’s just not telling the whole truth. So does this improve consumer understanding of the possible (if slightly exaggerated) science behind the “miracle ingredients”? Or does it lead people to become skeptical?
A UK study predicts consumers will view science in cosmetic advertising in one of two ways:
“It may be viewed skeptically because it is difficult to validate, or it may be viewed positively because it is seen as objective” (p. 213)
So which one is it? After seeing The Gruen Transfer‘s episode on skin care (if you haven’t seen I highly recommend it) and a few years of studying science I view any jargon and “miracle ingredients” skeptically. If I see an advertisement saying “1 in 10 women showed improved signs…” I want more information and want to see the evidence. However, my mum is a sucker for these advertisements and seems to have bought every cosmetic under the sun. If you look through her bathroom cabinet (and no I’m not giving you permission to stalk her) it’s an advertising wonderland, filled with one miracle product after another. But does she believe the science? Well, she defends the number of different purchases with claims about the differences in ingredients between the products, and what each can supposedly do. So maybe, but this also shows that she is looking at the science.
In some ways, I think advertising can increase knowledge of science. After rereading my last paragraph I realised it gets me more interested in the science, even if it is to question the validity of the product.
What do you think? Is cosmetic advertising painting a good or bad picture of science? Or do the public not actually care?
Dodds, R.E, Tseelon, E, Weitkamp E.L.C (2008). Making Sense of Scientific Claims in Advertising. A Study of Scientifically Aware Consumers. Public Understanding of Science, 7(1) pp. 211-230.