Are Celebs Making You Buy Beauty Products Without You Even Knowing It?

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
During last year’s Oscars, we watched Lupita Nyong’o pull a Clarins lip balm from her clutch and casually offer it to Ellen DeGeneres as a “tip” for a mid-ceremony pizza snack. “Lupita’s lip balm! That’s worth something!” DeGeneres said. Turns out, Ellen was right. It was definitely worth something — just not for the delivery guy.

A Clarins press release stated the HydraQuench Moisture Replenishing Balm “almost sold out across the country overnight.” The hashtag #LupitasLipBalm went viral on Twitter, only helping boost sales. After Daily Mail published an article about the event, a reader commented: “If she had thrown a tampon into the hat, would that have sold out? It’s sad how much we act like sheep.” Do we?

The Roles We Play

At first glance, the lip balm flying off shelves seems expected — it’s common to want to buy a product used or endorsed by a celebrity. But, not everyone’s willing to acknowledge it. Karen Grant, global beauty industry analyst for NPD Group, says: “Even at the height of the celebrity fragrance trend, less than 10% of women stated a celebrity endorsement influenced their purchase decision.”

However, according to Grant and other experts, a less tangible level of influence still occurs, whether a customer is willing to admit it or not. Michael Solomon, PhD, director of the Center of Consumer Research at St. Joseph’s University, says a product has not just a functional value to a buyer, but also a social value. “The consumer often relies upon the social information inherent in products to shape self-image and to maximize the quality of role performance,” he says.

Dr. Solomon explains how we all play roles in life. We may play the manager, best friend, chef, or athlete, and can take on multiple ones throughout a day. He and other consumer-behavior researchers suggest we acquire items to help us play these roles, and even think certain products help us perform better in them.

For instance, choosing to buy a pair of thick-framed glasses may define your role as a hipster. Why not just buy a regular pair? After all, you only need glasses to serve the functional purpose of seeing things more clearly. While the regular pair may offer this functional need, the black Wayfarer style secures a social need because it is recognized as one worn by hipsters, thus helping you embody the lifestyle. Purchasing products helps us define who we are and who we want to be. This concept is referred to as symbolic self-completion: the idea that we purchase products to help us achieve, or complete, our ideal selves. 
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Celeb Besties
What happens when we add celebrities to the mix — like what happened with Lupita at the Oscars? Just as wide-rimmed glasses are an accessory associated with hipsters and counter-culture, superstars are often known for good looks and great figures. Sometimes, we feel like we want to be their best friend or steal their entire closet. It's worth noting that Lupita's pair of dark-framed glasses at the Golden Globes sparked a frenzy of desire on Twitter. Coincidence? 

Dr. Solomon says we gather social information about a product, which often includes a spokesperson, to help us symbolically complete ourselves. When we see a celeb in a commercial for a new lipstick or shampoo, we associate her with the product. Grant says: “Celebrity endorsements are often thought to add a cool factor, and sense of specialness or exclusivity, to a product.” By purchasing the lipstick or shampoo, a customer feels special, cool, attractive — like the star. Symbolic self-completion is at work because the product helps us acquire traits we want to embody.

You may be thinking, This probably just happens with celebrities I really like or admire. Not so much. The public was not particularly kind to Monica Lewinsky after hearing news of her affair with former president Bill Clinton in 1998. However, after a source revealed the lipstick Lewinsky wore during an interview with Barbara Walters in 1999, the color “Glaze” sold out at Club Monaco cosmetic counters nationally
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

Subliminal Advertising

Grant and Dr. Solomon both say that even though we’re hesitant to admit that symbolic self-completion affects us, an influence still occurs. The theory underlies our most basic, everyday purchases, from groceries to makeup. It’s difficult to explain our impulse to grab a coconut water instead of a regular bottled water, or the eyebrow gel endorsed by Cara Delevingne versus another. Buying the coconut water silently says, “I’m health-conscious” to both yourself and the world, and purchasing the eyebrow gel may make you feel like you’re better equipped to get killer brows. We often aren’t aware of symbolic self-completion occurring. 

Since thousands of products launch each year, it’s understandable why marketers pay celebrities to make their brands stand out. Because customers may not like being influenced by celebs, Grant says authenticity and non-paid advertising, like Lupita casually revealing her lip balm, are the most influential factors. “Consumers are aware of what’s authentic and what’s not — they want products that work,” says Grant. “It goes a long way when they see a celebrity, who can purchase any product she wants, actually use a particular brand because they want to, not because they’re a paid spokesperson.”

The urge to buy the same conditioner as Gisele, whether she is endorsing it or not, is a natural human tendency. There are also examples of symbolic self-completion being used positively, like when celebs encourage the public to donate to a philanthropic or political cause. In fact, we may even link ourselves to a star by not purchasing, like when Sophia Bush criticized Urban Outfitters’ “Eat Less” T-shirt. But, we may still check out how much Lupita’s lip balm costs (just in case!) — and that’s perfectly normal. 


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