It’s Everywhere!

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.

By madeleine

11 comments on “It’s Everywhere!

  1. Good post, Madeleine!
    Reading your post actually reminds me of something I’ve learnt in cognitive psychology last year. Many commercials have use “Abstraction” technique to lead the audience to believe in something that the advertising only hints at. In another words, when using abstraction principle, people appear to lose specific surface information, and they usually walk away with “gist”, that is what they infer and what they have abstracted.
    So for the NIVEA commercial, when they say “miracle ingredients”, the audience may not know the scientific facts about the product. Some people maybe skeptical (like us) or some others maybe positive about the product. And of course, the advertising is aimed to people who are not so skeptical and they can abstract the information that is only hinted at. In my opinion, many cosmetic advertising out there do not provide enough scientific facts, however, that doesn’t determine whether the public will support the product or not.
    Thanks for sharing your post, Madeleine.

    • Hi buid01,
      I have to admit I may have fallen pray to this abstraction technique in other forms of advertising and made up my own explanations for what is going on. Do you think that the same may happen with other people, making up their own scientific explanation from the small amount of information they now think they understand?


  2. Madeline, I just love the way you bring home what you believe is worth thinking twice about. I am not sure what it is about the public apparently accepting the shallow science portrayed in advertisement.
    What I do know (?) / believe, by watching the Gruen Transfer and listening to their discussions, is that the advertising industry knows exactly what they are doing!
    It is probably not their priority at all to care about how science is depicted. It sounds like buid01’s suggestion, that advertising is aimed at those convinced it does not matter how sound the science, is not far from reality. What matters much more may be that by using the product, there could be a chance to look like the perfect (computer touched-up) woman in the ad?

  3. Reading this post reminded me of the Dove push for natural beauty ( ).
    I think a lot of people don’t regard the visuals they see in advertisements as “fact” but yet regard the science behind the product as correct. I don’t think it paints either a good or bad view of science itself, but rather a poor image of the science literacy of the general public. As has been said above, very little science is actually portrayed directly in the advertisements, but people infer outside of the parameters they are given.
    The advertising industry definitely know what they are doing, and play right into the publics hands.

    • The comment “exageration to make the customer feel better. sure you can photoshop the hell out a model, but its probably just easier to hire a nice looking model in the first place.” amused me.

      I guess it just hammers in again that given peoples diversity you needn’t have a generally effective advertisement, as long as there is A target audience which will fall for it. As Madeleine mentioned she has some pretty different reactions to these presentations of science to her mother, but you don’t even need 1 woman in 2 to fall for these things for them to be a success.

      As long as there is science illiteracy around, people are going to continue to be victimised by abstractions like this.

  4. I agree with the sentiments posted above. I also think people may not care, I for one often zone out during such ads and don’t really pay attention to the ‘science’. People often look for a quick fix or miracle cure, and the science in beauty ads might appeal to them because of that. I don’t think it paints a bad picture of science, even if the whole truth isn’t presented, I think it just paints a bad picture on advertising campaigns.

  5. I like the post and certainly makes you reflect on the daily commercials we are exposed to. From my point of view, I would not read too much into the commercial. Since, the advertisers need to sell a product, or in the case of marketing a solution to a need. Cells need oxygen and increasing oxygen will slow down ageing. The average person may understand the need for oxygen, but as you pointed out it is unlikely to provide the concentration required. In this case the advertiser has distorted the facts a bit, but how would the public perceive this? Are they made wiser and make connections, such as, if I stop smoking my body will get more oxygen and my skin will improve!.
    I surpose some consumer program will put into perspective with some scientist quantifying its validity.

  6. Science really is everywhere! I reckon that means if science communicators can get across that message of how relevant science is to someone’s day-to-day activities, decisions etc., it will increase scientific literacy and engagement. People will always be interested in something that is meaningful to their own lives. I guess that’s why commercials like the beauty products ones are so effective, because they are meaningful to people and appeal to certain values and aspirations. So if we can connect science with people’s everyday lives and what’s important to them, we’ll find it much easier to get them to listen to real, good science.

    • Yvette- I totally agree and thats why I think it is so important that people try and choose a specific target audience. That way, you can work out what is actually meaningful to your audience and you will have a much better chance at getting them to listen and understand.


  7. Good post madeleine! you remind me the drink called “PLACENTA”.
    I tried the other type of Placenta drink before because it was my friend’s favorite for her beauty.
    She said “Placenta is really good for your skin!!”
    So, I asked her “Do you know what Placenta is?”
    and she answered “….magical ingredients?”
    She didn’t even know what it was and still recomended it to me!!
    I explaind her about it afterwards and showed her a picture of Placenta of mouse.

    I think consumers dont really care if advertising include science or not. Also, I do not think they can learn science from the advertising of cosmetic products. However, “Scientific words” maeks them to buy as it seems believeable.

  8. Hi Madeleine! Great post!

    I’m not sure if people don’t care, I think it’s more to do with the ‘quick fix’. I mean, if something as easy as a little bottle of moisturiser can ‘make’ you look young (exercise and healthy eating goes out the window!) then I think, whether you believe it or not, sometimes you just take that easy option.

    I know it’s not cosmetics, but look at all those ads for exercise equipment that you only have to use for 10 minutes a day. There are so many of them that there has to be a market for it, which means people are either getting suckered, or simply are hoping that the easy option might just work. The same is true for cosmetics.

    The main thing that really bugs me with cosmetic ads is the fact that they place so much emphasis on results from clinical trials. Clinical trials are not the same as scientific trials! They often don’t have a very large sample size and therefore the data is not entirely valid. Sure it may show promise, but you can’t really claim anything from it. The public (at large) is generally not aware of this (or choose not to be).

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