Makeup and Marketing in Modern Beauty

Makeup and marketing have a complicated relationship. Emily Isaac writes about the effect makeup advertising has on her, the message she feels it sends to consumers, and how that message is changing today.


If you’ve browsed the internet or taken a walk down a city street, chances are you have encountered makeup advertising. The beauty industry has ballooned into a massive part of our economy, grossing 532 billion US dollars globally in 2017 and growing. Beauty YouTubers dominate the internet with product reviews and makeup challenges, creating online millionaires and a digital side of the industry that didn’t even exist a decade ago. In recent years, so many new brands have flooded the market that one step into Sephora can leave a makeup newbie drowning in choices.

As a feminist and self-identifying beauty hoarder, I’m sometimes conflicted between my two passions and how they connect to one another. Beauty products often advertise by promising to erase “imperfections,” and perpetuate an idealised picture of a woman mostly meant to be pleasing for the male eye. The use of photoshop and airbrushing in magazines and then on social media has twisted reality to alter how we think women should look. This can sometimes make me feel like wearing makeup is necessary to put the most acceptable (albeit edited) version of myself out into the world, a standard that seems much more relaxed for men.

Men and women have utilised makeup in many cultures in the past. When makeup made a comeback in the early 20th century, however, advertising was completely focused on women. Makeup ads now try to appeal to women by telling them how beautiful, alluring, or desirable they can become in order to appeal to men. This marketed woman is unattainable, and can leave some women feeling less than adequate. History has shown that the role of women has long been seen as being desirable or sexually appealing (but not too sexual), marrying well, and bearing children for a husband. This varies by culture, of course, but the general formula is similar around the world. As makeup is purely a topical, visual product, it makes sense that it would be designed to aid in the execution of this female role. The “ideal woman” that’s marketed in the beauty industry ensures consistent and  successful makeup sales as “regular” women spend their money forever trying to achieve the impossible.

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Although it is hard to escape over a century of sexist makeup advertising and an even longer period of sexist attitudes towards women in society, the makeup industry is slowly transforming into something different. Makeup brands are expanding their ad campaigns to include all different ethnicities, body types, ages and genders. There is also a tangible shift in the way they are targeting viewers. Slowly but surely, cosmetics companies are beginning to focus on self-love and self-confidence as opposed to being desirable in order to please men. There are increasing numbers of female-owned cosmetics brands flooding the market, such as Beauty Bakerie and Fenty Beauty, that are changing the narrative from male exploitation of female insecurities to women understanding what other women want. The developing intersectional industry today is starting to stick up for those of all genders, identities, and races alike.

The explosion of beauty gurus on YouTube has its own important part in this process. The artful side of makeup is becoming popularized and accepted as well. YouTubers such as NikkieTutorials and James Charles use their makeup skills to do everything from smokey eye looks to recreating Bob Ross paintings on their faces (I’m serious, look it up). Additionally, the involvement and increasing acceptance of of the LGBTQ+ community and drag in the makeup scene have made beauty products a tool of talent and expression rather than a means of correction.

Ultimately, the market will go wherever things are profitable. It may be the case that some companies are simply using diversity as a marketing move to make more money, rather than actually caring about inclusivity. Regardless, women are beginning to speak up about what they want. Activists like Jameela Jamil (@jameelajamilofficial) are putting pressure on the industry to become more inclusive, and to embrace intersectionality. Unlike in the 20th century, the feminist beauty movement has gained enough momentum that marketers have no choice but to listen.