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Beauty Industry Efficacy Bias

When I heard the term “Beauty Industry Efficacy Bias” on the On the Media podcast also known as BIEB, I knew I had to share it with you. This is a great example of a whole set of information processing heuristics operating in the wild. Making a whole industry (really several related industries) richer in the process. And all of us a little bit poorer.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If a report presents only or primarily the benefits of a new treatment, it’s a bad report. ALL healthcare interventions have trade-offs.

In case you haven’t guessed, BIEB is the unfortunate confluence of perverse motivations that lead ineffective beauty products to be released and hyped in the consumer marketplace. You can clearly see my bias on the subject, so consider yourself forewarned. I am practicing my biased writing skills to keep with the theme of the topic. But it is not just me. The Atlantic has a great article outlining the many sources of BIEB.

My Take

Here are just a few sources of error that I saw in the Atlantic article. With a little thought, I am sure we could come up with many more.

  • The “skin coach” (i.e. pseudo doctor) uses an intense close-up image of the patient’s skin. At this level of magnification, all skin appears fatally flawed. It is easy to find problems to solve, conditions to cure, products to sell. This is called manipulating your alpha error.
  • The images are taken with an impressive looking machine and proprietary “complexion-analysis” software. Sounds impressive, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence behind it. This is called blinding them with science .
  • The skin coach recommended (and sold right on the spot) a bag full of high-end (i.e. expensive) products. By doing it quickly, she leveraged the emotional domination of short term thinking. By included a large number of products, she leveraged confounding variables. If one of them works, there is no way to know which one. The patient has to keep buying them all.
  • One of the products contained white truffles and caviar. This induces a halo effect. These are very exclusive ingredients, so the product must also be exclusive. And therefore effective.
  • They use vague terms like “radiate” and “revitalize” which are very hard to measure objectively. How can anyone disconfirm a statement like “Your skins looks “revitalized” or “radiant”?
  • They use technical sounding terms. “Clinically proven” does not mean tested in clinical trials. It might mean “I asked two people in my clinic waiting room.”
  • All of the testing that The Atlantic journalist could find was done by dermatologists who sell the product or by the manufacturers themselves. Hardly an unbiased experimenter. Even if they try to be honest, they are subject to many unconscious and unintentional biases such as confirmation. This is why FDA testing is double blind.
  • The studies that have been done have very small sample sizes. This induces base rate errors, availability bias, and the use of anecdotal evidence over statistical significance.
  • Consumers very badly want them to work, so that they can become beautiful (and overcome whatever self-esteem issues they have). First, they want to look better (or they wouldn’t be shopping for these products in the first place). They also don’t want to think of themselves as a sucker if they pay through the nose for the product only to find out it is snake oil. This induces a placebo effect for the product and a reporting bias back to the world. Throw in a little availability bias and confirmation bias too.
  • The news media wants the products to be effective. Magazines, morning TV shows, beauty product web sites and blogs – there are no ratings in saying there is nothing new out there. But being the first to report on the magical new miracle cure – now there is a story! This is magnified when the biggest advertisers in these media are the product manufacturers and vendors.

Your Turn

OK, I know I have stated just one side of this case. I did that intentionally because I am illustrating what the beauty industry does for their products and services. Just as my one-sided presentation doesn’t mean that I am wrong, the beauty industries one-sided presentation doesn’t mean that the products don’t work. It just means that you should take what they (and I) say with a grain of salt.

So now it is your turn. If you want to pile on a few criticisms, feel free. If you want to defend the industry, that is welcome too. Sound off.

Image Credit: sunshinecity

2 thoughts on “Beauty Industry Efficacy Bias”

  1. Great stuff! Thanks for sharing. This topic is of interest to me, so I could write an infinite number of questions and comments. 🙂

    I worked in sales and management in the health and beauty industry for years before I changed fields (HF/HCI). I was often conflicted about the false marketing techniques they wanted us to employ. I remember a coworker asking once why I didn’t talk up certain products and services as much as others but was still able to sell others effectively. In hindsight, I think I was more successful by being honest (and even sometimes recommending products outside the store).

    As a side note – I have used Paula’s Choice and relied on her Beautypedia guide since I was a teenager. She is a chemist turned skincare specialist who breaks down product ingredients, provides cost-benefit analysis and cites research debunking claims made by big companies. One thing I will never forget is how some truly beneficial ingredients break down in sunlight or oxygen, so all those $100 creams in jars are worthless after a few uses. A lot of consumers and companies really pushed back as she published this kind of information. Now she is gaining serious traction. It’s an interesting time. (Also this articles makes me thankful for a dermatologist who doesn’t sell anything but SPF 30, Vaseline and CeraVe.)

    Do you think there will ever be an oversight like the FDA’s on health and beauty products?

    1. @Alex – thanks for your comments. I don’t think the FDA will ever get involved because these are all OTC products that are very careful not to make official health claims.

      I was also very careful to note that most of these BIEBs are unintentional. We are often blinded by our motivations and incentives. I am sure that there are many unethical folks who are no better than snake oil salesmen. But many really delude themselves. Consumers too.

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