Although acne is a natural process of puberty in which most teenagers go through, acne is still greatly stigmatized within society. Acne and acne-prone skin has long been an indication of “flawed” skin, while acne-free, clean, and clear skin, has been a marker of “flawless” skin and beauty. There are two different approaches to advertising acne products: the social approach and the medical approach. The social approach hinges on the anxiety and insecurities individuals have towards acne, whereas the medical approach looks to science to make acne-fighting products more justified and legitimate.
The social approach is exemplified in this Proactiv poster advertisement. In bold, it says: “Got Acne? Just ask your boyfriend what to do. Oh, that’s right, you don’t have a boyfriend”. First of all, this ad very explicitly encroaches on the very insecurities that many have, catching the reader off guard. The ad overtly states the potential social capital gained as a result of having flawless skin. Hunter mentions that beauty “can be transformed into social capital (social networks), symbolic capital (esteem or status), or even economic capital (high-paying job or promotion)” (145). The ad conflates the presence of acne and ugliness with the absence of a relationship, which perpetuate the potential social capital that comes with beauty.
Also, this ad is gendered and heteronormative. The use of pink in the text assumes associations of pink with women. On top of that, women are presumed to be interested in men, with the pink (indication of women) colored text and referral to the boyfriend. The ad also instructs the audience to “ask your boyfriend what to do”. This ultimately reinforces the patriarchal society we live in because it presumes that the boyfriend is more logical and smarter than the woman reader. Looking further at the ad’s use of color, the black background serves as a stark contrast from the white Proactiv bottles. The whiteness of these bottles portrays the pure, innocent, and good that comes out of using Proactiv. Proactiv is your solution. Kathy Peiss describes this belief that “outer appearance corresponded to inner character…[where] hair, skin, and eye color frequently stood as signs of women’s inner virtue” (24). This is where the previously mentioned “flawed” skin is associated with flawed character. However, Proactiv gives the reader the opportunity to change their flawed character, by being proactive. This points to a larger concept that displays beauty and clear skin as something fixable. Acne is something that needs to be fixed, or else, the person will have to deal with the consequences and loss of social capital. However, thinking that all acne is fixable “deflects attention from structural inequalities based on” class, as many people are unable to afford these products (Davis, pg. 6).
This is compared to the medical approach that Proactiv uses to target a different set of audience, but still ignores structural inequalities. This video here shows white women in white lab coats using medical language to demonstrate how Proactiv “cures” acne. The terms used, such as therapy, formula, concentration, and hormones, comforts middle to upper class audiences who are able to understand these terms, while excluding all other audiences. Using medical terms makes the audience think that it has been tested many times before, suggesting that the products are legitimate and valid for use.
Overall, the medical and social approach to advertising acne products fuel one another. The use of medical terms in acne product advertising upholds the western-centric medical perspective that medicine is The Cure and the solution to all things. This is further reinforced through societal expectations and standards of beauty by linking beauty with moral character and social capital, which ultimately ignores class or any other structural inequality. Since structural barriers have been erased, not being “proactiv” reflects upon the person’s moral character of being too lazy and disinterested in self-improvement; when in reality, the barriers to acne-free skin may be linked to class or the fact that Proactiv just does not work on their skin.
Davis, K. (2003). Dubious equalities and embodied differences: Cultural studies on cosmetic surgery. Rowman & Littlefield.
Hunter, M. L. (2011). Buying racial capital: Skin-bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a globalized world. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(4), 142-164.
Peiss, K. (2011). Hope in a jar: The making of America’s beauty culture. University of Pennsylvania Press.