These days, it seems like there are two types of aunts on Facebook: the ones who won’t stop defending Trump, and the ones who won’t stop trying to sell you LipSense. For a while, we thought the latter camp was a pretty harmless (if not persistent) group. Sure, the way they describe the longwearing lipstick is borderline cultish and their views on exfoliation and makeup removal are a little… suspect. But for the most part, they’re just out here trying to make a buck like the rest of us.
Except, it turns out that buck might actually be supporting Trump, too. Records show that Ben Kante, the Chief Strategy Officer of SeneGence International (the company that distributes LipSense), was Oklahoma's top donor to the 2017 Inauguration Committee, having given $250,000 under the name Bennie Kante. Kante is also married to SeneGence’s founder and CEO Joni Rogers-Kante.
What's more, according to Open Secrets, the leading independent, non-partisan, non-profit research group tracking all political contributions in the U.S. from 1989-2017, it appears that Kante is a first-time donor. (His wife Rogers-Kante gave a total of $2,000 over 2006 and 2007 to the National Republican Congressional Committee.)
So what would inspire one to donate a large sum for the first time to an inauguration committee versus a campaign? Kante and Rogers-Kante ignored multiple requests for interviews, and a marketing representative for SeneGence offered only this: "We wouldn’t comment on Ben’s personal views from SeneGence as they are not affiliated with the company." So I reached out to Jessica A. Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
"Generally speaking, you give because you expect to get," Levinson, who specializes in election law, says. "People often become big donors all of a sudden because either the makeup of the legislature changes or the administration changes, sometimes unexpectedly, and they realize it’s too late for a campaign contribution." Trump's victory was a surprise to the majority of the country, so Levinson says it's likely that money contributed after the fact is done in an effort to curry favor with the elected official and those who have power over regulatory agencies. (The FDA, which regulates cosmetics, comes to mind — especially as consumers push for stricter laws and approvals over the products they put on their skin.)
You might think that if a person has the money to give, they would want to be in favor with any administration — either Democratic or Republican. But Levinson says that's not necessarily the case. "People donate to presidents who will be amenable to their cause, so it's not at all surprising that they wouldn’t give to President Obama, [given the] divide with respect to dealing with agencies like the FDA and regulations," she speculated. "I would think President Obama would be more predisposed to support rigorous vetting of products and President Trump would want less vetting."
Of course, none of this is illegal in any way — it's just how the system works. Levinson even says you can make the argument that it's a bad move not to give to those in charge if it'll help your bottom line: "The truth is, $250,000 is a completely smart contribution if you think that your business can benefit to the tune of $251,000."
Still, whether it's a savvy way of playing the game or a genuine token of loyalty, the fact is that the money the Kante family is making from sales of their cosmetics and skin care supported Trump. And since the personal has never been as political as it is now, I wondered if the news would color the sellers' or consumers' perception of the brand. After all, we’re in a time when many people are boycotting companies that sell Trump family products (#grabyourwallet) or have monetary ties to the administration.
Finding LipSense distributors who would speak to me on the record about the political ties wasn't easy — I reached out to 12 located around the country; only two agreed. It seems most of these women, who work as their own boss, set their own hours, have unlimited potential to earn, and sell largely to customers in red states, have no reason to want to rock the boat. The sellers I did talk to were undeterred by news of the contribution.
"I definitely don't want to use my real name, just because we're all independent, self-employed contractors and I wouldn't want to say something that misrepresents the company," said a seller in Columbus, OH, who prefers not to state her political leanings either. "I keep politics separate from work. I have customers in both parties and I wouldn't want them to feel targeted or not buy from me based on my political views.”
Jess, a seller in Hudson Valley, NY, who has been with SeneGence for a year, said that while she doesn't support Trump "at all, in any way," she feels comfortable staying with the company because "they never once bring politics into it.” As she puts it: “Who am I to tell someone else what they can do with their own money?"
Three customers I spoke to basically echoed Jess' sentiment: They're anti-Trump, but won't stop purchasing the liquid lipstick. Only one, Allison* in Brooklyn, NY, made the decision to stop purchasing SeneGence products altogether after learning of Kante's contribution. She wrote over email, "Given the nature of a makeup/skincare company that both celebrates ingredients that do not cause harm and targets women as their main audience, I was shocked to learn that [its executives] would contribute such a significant amount to the inauguration of a man that was on record to demean, belittle, objectify, and harass in words and action the very state of being woman. No matter one's political orientation, I cannot help but ask myself, how can a woman get behind that, much less help fund it?"
It’s worth noting that most of the women I spoke to had no idea about the large donation prior to our conversation. Still, they weren’t shocked. Says Jess, the seller in New York, "I know it’s a stereotype, but they're from Oklahoma and down in the South, the support for Trump is more prevalent." The seller in Ohio agreed, pointing out that the company is based in a red state. That question — how can you back LipSense if you don't back its political ties? — was something they'd already figured out.
At a party later that night, I couldn't stop staring at the perfectly glossy red lips of a PR director I was chatting with. "What are you wearing?" I asked, never expecting her to say LipSense. It was, though, so I told her about this story and asked her opinion. "That's really interesting. It's definitely something to think twice about supporting in the future," she said. Then she added: "But, you still have to try it."
*Names have been changed.
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