An open letter to Procter & Gamble

Dear Procter & Gamble,

I am a professional woman and I buy a lot of cosmetics.  I wear makeup almost everyday.  From time-to-time, I even write about cosmetics on my blog.  Your recent study on makeup and the perceived competence of women stinks.  And for that reason, I will no longer buy your products.

You probably fund a lot of studies, so let me be more specific.  I am referring to the study in which you paid Harvard Medical School, among others, to study whether makeup alters people’s perception of the qualitative worth of women.

As you stated in your press release this was “the first-ever study” on this topic.  The study started off okay (well, except that you are in the business of selling cosmetics, and so any findings are tainted by a strong bias).  You set out to research the effects that color cosmetics can have on people’s perception of faces.  In two studies, you asked participants to rate the same female faces with or without color cosmetics.  For the faces adorned with makeup, you varied the style of makeup from minimal (i.e., natural), to moderate (i.e., professional), to dramatic (i.e., glamorous).  In each style of makeup you increased the contrast between the facial features and surrounding skin.

But here is where your study and your attempt to find deeper meaning and broader application for your tiny study becomes nothing but an ill-conceived and poorly executed marketing strategy.   Your study focuses on whether makeup can increase the perceived “competence” of women.  But competence is not a compliment.  Garner’s Modern American Usage explains that “[c]ompetence usually bears the general sense ‘a basic or minimal ability to do something.”  Maybe Procter & Gamble expects its female employees to aim only for mere competence.  Most women I know aim a bit higher.

Women aren’t going to wear makeup to show that they have the minimal ability to do anything.  If a woman chooses to spend 20 minutes (or more) applying makeup to alter how she is perceived, trust me, she isn’t striving to receive a judgment of just adequate.

Maybe more troubling is what your study implies if a woman does not wear makeup.  By implication, you are saying that without makeup, women are perceived as incompetent.  And that is deeply offensive on many levels.

But lets put that aside, and pretend that mere competence is all that women aim for.  Your study still is ridiculous.  Competence is the state of being adequate to do a certain something.  But your study never specifies what that something is.  Were the women wearing makeup perceived at possessing more competence to conduct brain surgery?  To pilot an aircraft? Or to mow their lawn?  There is a big difference.

You may say —  and rightly so — that makeup really does alter how people perceive women.  We all know this to be true.  That is why women have spent the last thousand years or so slathering it on.  And, makeup can make you look and feel better.  But you should know that by funding a study to suggest that women have to wear makeup to appear to possess competence, you will anger a good percentage of your customer base.  This mentality is precisely what women have been fighting against.  See, e.g., “Your Lack of Mascara Is an Sign of Your Utter Incompetence” [Jezebel]; “Is Procter & Gamble Trying to Blackmail Women into Buying Makeup?” [The Gloss].

You still might feel, nevertheless, that this is an important scientific study, and that women need to be armed with this information so that they can better equip themselves with eyeliners and lipsticks if they choose to do so.  That is awesome.  That is third-wave feminism.  But you should be aware that how you go about disseminating this information matters.  If you are going to conduct studies like this, do it right.  This study feels more like a publicity stunt, than an honest attempt at determining the true answer to the question.   One problem is that the sample size was so small.  There were only two groups surveyed in this study (one group was asked to make a snap judgment after quickly viewing the photos, and the other group was given unlimited time to view the photos), and each group was fewer than 150 people.  Another problem is that there was no attempt at replication to confirm your data.  You are Procter & Gamble, you can afford to do better science than this.

And if you are going to prepare a press release, write one that doesn’t encourage the mainstream media to over-interpret your data.  Your press release has been picked up everywhere with lots of cute sound bytes that aren’t supported by the data.  See, e.g., 

  • “Up the Ladder, Lipstick in Hand [NYT];
  • “Lipstick and Eyeliner May Be the Secret Ingredients of Looking Smart at Work” [Business Insider];

Finally, if you are going to employ a researcher to study how cosmetics can make women appear to possess more competence, make sure your researcher wears enough make up in the video so that she too can reap the benefit of the study and be perceived as competent.


Siouxsie Law

~ by siouxsielaw on October 16, 2011.

22 Responses to “An open letter to Procter & Gamble”

  1. dear god, am i going to have to start wearing makeup to work?

    of course, I stopped wearing makeup to work in order to appear more serious and mature, and less like a flighty girl with lip gloss. but apparently that has backfired on me. ughhh.

  2. i don’t wear makeup to work. my bosses love me. stick that up your corporately-funded “study,” procter & gamble.

    count me right along for opting out of their products. good lord, how condescending and obnoxious.

  3. I wear make up for my own devious fun. No one should care if it makes you look smart,pretty or anything. Women who don’t wear it are just as good as those who wear it.

  4. As an avid user of cosmetics and a beauty professional, I have to agree whole-heartedly: when I put on my makeup in the morning, or apply makeup to a client or potential client, I am NOT aiming for “competence.” Clearly, what Procter&Gamble has proven has nothing to do with makeup but that they have merely competent communication skills.

  5. What a load of crap on a stick.

    Previously I worked a few male dominated jobs where the women who wore make up were considered less intelligent, if not incompetent. (Science/engineering/construction.)

    Now I work in a people and image industry and you damned well better believe your credibility is tightly bound to your appearance, and that means you cosmetics, too. Going without make up would be inappropriate–so much so that you would look daft (or sick).

    No, P&G, guess again. I am a business professional who wears make up that speaks to my attention to detail and says my appearance matters and I am polished for my clients, as well as for myself. My look says I am well worth my billing rate. And now I am very glad none of my cosmetics are manufactured or sold by you.

    Poor P&G. Still struggling with that climb out of the primordial slime and not yet evolved enough to see in the full light of professional women in the current age. I wonder what kind of BS the women that work there face?

  6. I find it disgusting that they feel the need to bully women into wearing make-up. Create products that do what they’re supposed to, with good pigmentation levels, advertise their facts adequately, and people who are interested in these things will buy them. I won’t, because CoverGirl isn’t widely stocked in the UK, and MaxFactor is too expensive for what it is, and also they test on animals, but hey.

    • I agree. Even more, if they want to persuade women to buy this stuff — they should make it all about choice. Make it fun. Don’t make it into another stupid rule that women have to follow to be the perfect woman.

  7. […] According to the WSJ, a new study suggests you should wear makeup to look more competent.  Siouxsie Law rages, writing an open letter to Proctor & Gamble (who funded the study).  Meanwhile, Capitol […]

  8. Seriously. In a lot of male dominated fields, we’re not allowed to wear makeup. Sure as we climb the ladder we don’t have to go on the manufacturing floor as often in a biotech company but how would you feel if the anti cancer drugs you used were tainted with lipstick or mascara flakes?

    Trust me, the guys also don’t care for it when you have to go off to scrub your face and wait for you to come back to make your face again.
    The girls who are willing to get down and dirty to learn are respected so much more

  9. Thank you for this. I am an appellate attorney and don’t wear makeup unless I am going to court. On a daily basis I perform my prestigious job well above average and whether or not I have put on makeup has nothing to do with my “competence”. P&G had nothing to do with MAC – I hope!

  10. Yea! Best take-down EVER!

  11. I don’t think what they said was worded well, but they do have a point…we all are attracted to pretty things and makeup can give us a prettier appearance, it does sell us as someone who cares about ourselves and will care about our customer or client. It sucks and it is not fair, as it should be based on our abilities, not our looks, but that is just the way the world works.

    That being said, and not what Proctor and Gamble will want to post as it would as it would negatively impact their sales and what the study doesn’t address, is how too much makeup can negatively affect how we are perceived even more than no make up.

    When I was just out of college and searching for a job, I was told frankly that “this is the Bible Belt and unless you have a freshly scrubbed look, you will not be taken seriously”.

    I was fuming mad and offended, but upon thinking it further I realized I did have to consider my target audience and edit my make up choice to ensure my target audience would be comfortable with my appearance, which was just foundation to cover blemishes and either mascara or lipstick.

    • I don’t have any problem with people setting out to study the so-called “beauty privilege.” Nor do I have an issue with people investigating whether, or to what extent, the use of makeup affects the manner in which women are perceived in our society. My gripe with P&G is how they framed the question and then proceeded with their research. Not to mention how they presented their research to the media. You make a great point about “target audience.” I don’t think their research even took “target audience” into account.

      And I guess I have a greater issue with P&G (a company that sells cosmetics) setting out to prove that women need to wear makeup to be seen as “competent.” I find it offensive and condescending. Even if their theory is true (which I don’t believe it is), I am not going to support a company that promotes this way of thinking. Why? Because, like you said, this way of thinking sucks and is not fair.

      And what if, like you say, this is just how the world works. Well, to be presentable, men used to wear makeup and powdered wigs. I never see that look anymore. This stuff is mutable.

      I’ll purchase my cosmetics from a company that wants to prove to the world that women can look lots of different ways and still be perceived as “competent.”

  12. Up next I hope to see the Walmart funded study which says it’s smart to shop at Walmart. I mean how freaking biased could a study be?

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