I was show-surfing on Hulu the other day when a commercial for an acne medication called ONEXTON caught my eye. As I watched one beaming model after another pose for the camera, I noticed something unusual. These models—while largely acne-free, after using the prescription gel—still appear to have pimples in the "after" montage.
“This used to be me, hiding my acne,” says one model, hiding her face with her arms. “Now, I show my face—everywhereeeeee!” she says, dropping her hands and smiling straight into the camera. The model exuberantly explains that taking ONEXTON has allowed her to feel more confident in her own skin. Our girl still has a couple of zits on her face—but she doesn’t seem to mind.
The models in this ONEXTON ad from last year flaunt similarly pimple-speckled faces:
With these commercials, ONEXTON is selling more than a managed expectation of what acne medication can accomplish—it's selling the notion of being confident in spite of your skin. The ads are refreshing and, quite frankly, liberating. They're also just the latest in a growing cultural backlash against the notion that to be beautiful is be perfect.
When I think of the anti-acne commercials of my teen years, my mind immediately floats to Proactiv—the skincare juggernaut that first launched in 1995 and continues to produce one of the top-selling over-the-counter acne treatments in the United States. Proactiv has a enormous yearly media budget of $200 million, allowing the company to secure celebs such as Katy Perry, P. Diddy, and our golden boy Bieber, to whom they paid $3 million over the course of two years to say that holding his microphone up to his mouth gave him chin zits. All of these celebs "after" photos are positively luminous.
Proactiv commercials—and ads for other over-the-counter products promising clearer skin—have famously focused on attaining flawless skin. They rely heavily not just on radiant close-ups of seemingly airbrushed faces but on testimonials of those whose skin has been "fixed" by the product. Take this Clean & Clear Spot Treatment “See The Real Me” campaign that aired in Canada last year:
In it, the teens lament what others see. “I feel like if I have a zit, nobody’s really having a conversation with me. I feel like they’re having a conversation with my zit,” one teen expresses. “When I have clear skin, I feel like everybody can see the real me,” says another. The “See the Real Me” campaign runs under the assumption that the “real you,” whatever that is supposed to mean, is practically invisible to others if you’ve got one single zit standing in your way.
As more women fight back against the notion of perfection, companies are indeed beginning to change the way they sell personal care products to women. From Dove’s game-changing Campaign for Real Beauty to Always’ award-winning #LikeAGirl campaign to Aerie’s unretouched ads for their #AerieREAL campaign featuring size 12 model Barbara Ferriera, advertising today is increasingly speaking to what women want, not what women want based on what other people (read: men and marketers) want.
It is 2016, and 80% of women between the ages of 18 and 29 are single. That is double the amount of those who were single in the years after World War II, when the skincare market really took off. There is huge money to be made in selling to independent women who make their own money, so ads must reflect the values of the independent woman in her 20s who is living more for herself than in any other time in history.
In fact, ads targeting today’s women have even sparked a new marketing term: "femvertising." In an interview with CNN, Fama Francisco, the vice president for global feminine care at Procter & Gamble, said "femvertising" can describe “the type of ads champion girls and women—[the ads that] speak directly to them, and the people who love them, and celebrate them during various aspects of their life.” In other words, femvertising is just advertising for women that doesn’t pander to a man’s ideal.
Which proves this women-run world is still new. Model Barbara Ferreira’s body in a string bikini feels provocative because it is the first time a size 12 body in a bikini has been used in commercial advertising to sell non plus-sized clothing. And the ONEXTON commercial jumped out at me instantly—not because I am not used to seeing zits, but because I’ve never seen someone with zits on their face selling anti-acne medication before. Who has?
It’s curious. In one sense, it seems counterintuitive to sell medication intended to perfect your skin using models who seem to have learned to live with blemishes. But ONEXTON is selling skincare to people who suffer from acne vulgaris, which is categorized as a chronic skin disease and is obviously more severe than the singular pimple. And seeing women not afraid to show faces that have not been entirely cleared of acne makes for a more realistic case about the correlation between beauty products and confidence. What do women really want? Not perfection, because it isn't attainable. Women want to not feel preoccupied by feelings of insecurity when working, learning, or going about their day, to not be judged so harshly against this manufactured ideal of a flawless face.
Sure, it's possible that ONEXTON is simply playing it extra safe in following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines, which state that advertisements for prescription drugs "must not be false or misleading in any way." After all, in clinical studies of the treatment, patients taking ONEXTON didn't experience perfection, but "an average 60% reduction in their inflammatory acne (pimples) at 12 weeks, compared to a 31% reduction in the control group" and "an average 52% reduction in their comedonal acne (whiteheads and blackheads) at 12 weeks, compared to 28% in the control group." I reached out to Valeant Pharmaceuticals, the New Jersey-based company that makes ONEXTON, hoping to learn more about the brand's advertising strategy, but I had not heard back at the time of publication.
Regardless of ONEXTON’s intentions, however, the radical sell when watching the drug's commercials is the notion of improvement. I will admit that it feels sad to get excited about seeing a girl with three pimples on her face in a Hulu commercial—but even so, progress is infinitely better than perfection.
Christina Drill grew up in New Jersey and lives in New York. She manages the Digital Media Mentoring Program at Girls Write Now. Read more at christinadrill.com.