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The Ugly Side of Beauty: How Social Media Campaigns Are Damaging Gen Z

Published September 8, 2022
Published September 8, 2022
Adrian Swancar via Unsplash

Gen Z is the first generation to have grown up with the Internet. 52% of the generation admit to frequently engaging with online ad content, as well as purchasing through swipe-up links, as opposed to 30% of those older than them. This behavior, in addition to their estimated $140 billion of spending power, makes this demographic a prime target for marketers, who have turned heavily to online and social media marketing. With platforms like TikTok setting beauty trends and standards for their heavily Gen Z–dominated audience (60%), many young people feel they must meet these specific criteria to be seen as beautiful in the eyes of society. Although beauty standards have been prevalent for years, social media has exacerbated the problem, with 40% of teens stating that apps such as Instagram make them feel unattractive.

Last year, Facebook released research findings from a survey of 22,000 users across the US, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, and India. Of the total number surveyed, over 4,000 respondents said social media had an effect on their mental health and the way they view themselves; respondents state that they experience low self-esteem and other negative thoughts when scrolling through Instagram. The survey showed that one in four UK and US users felt unattractive when comparing themselves to what they saw on Instagram (appearance-based social comparison); Instagram was reported to have the worst impact on young people’s mental health of all social media platforms.

In response to the findings, Facebook was asked if there would be any action taken or even considered. What followed was the announcement of the pause of "Instagram Kids," a version of the app Facebook had been working on for under 13-year-olds to make the platform safer and more child friendly. Facebook stated that they had chosen to pause their developments to focus on ways to improve based on the survey results. However, some felt this move by Facebook equated to sweeping the issue under the rug.

Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of nonprofit children's media watchdog Common Sense, reflected on the findings, as well as the announcement: "The only thing they care about is hooking kids when they are most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform and getting access to as much of their data as possible. This is their business model that generates billions of dollars, and they are not going to jeopardize that." Steyer’s point is not far off, with over 40% of children under 13 using apps such as Instagram, despite the recommended 13+ age limit across the platform.

Young people’s continuous exposure to social media exacerbates this problem, as many children find it difficult to resist scrolling through images. Many kids admit they know social media does not make them happy, yet, they are still stuck in a rut of being unable to look away. Even when children know images are fake, edited, or not a true reflection, there seems to be little alleviation to the pressure that certain pieces of content bring with them. Sasha, a 15-year-old girl, told Child Mind Institute, “I knew a girl who had an eating disorder. We all knew it. It got so bad that she ended up going to a treatment center, but when she put pictures up of herself on the beach looking super-thin everyone liked them anyway.” She goes on to comment on the images causing her to doubt herself, despite knowing they were not current and that the young girl was in serious danger with her eating disorder illness: “I remember thinking ‘I wish I looked like that’ and then being horrified at myself.” Sasha also acknowledged that liking these images essentially condones her peers’ dangerous habits, analogous to when users “like” images in brand marketing that promote toxic beauty standards, only fueling companies to produce similar, insecurity-provoking content; “It’s like we were saying, ‘Good job,’” she concludes.

The damage wrought by this type of social approval is also evident when advertisements trigger compensatory consumption in consumers; compensatory consumption is defined as a “behavior in which individuals try to overcome this threatened perception of self by acquiring the product being advertised to them.” Dr Cui Su, Head of Advertising at Falmouth University, commented, “Beauty ads invest in prosaic items like soap or body lotion with the promise of a better life or a better self. For a woman with spots, ads for creams and lotions try to show her a better, likable self, that a blemish-free version of her is possible. However, in order to ensure further purchases, this future is always deferred and never fully realized. So to sustain the beauty industry, anxiety is still an important part of the feel-good advertising mix.”

"Our whole idea of being proud of who you are and the skin you're in, comes by encouraging the consumer to stop using filters, and have more confidence in who they are, with real skin."
By Charlotte Knight, CEO, Lottie London, Ciaté London, and Skin Proud

Body-positivity influencer and YouTuber Nelly London often unpacks and tackles advertisements and products that prey on insecurities. Her most recent post, in which she showed her unfiltered, unedited skin, highlighting that dry patches, oily skin, and face fuzz are all “normal skin.” Within the post, London emphasized that several beauty brands are editing what would most likely be considered “good skin” to make it look even more perfect, and certainly unattainable. The comments reflected on the damage advertisements are having on consumers, with one woman commenting, “Crazy because I always used to wonder how people got their makeup so flawless … now I know it was edited and filtered, never real skin.”

Regardless of opinion towards social media giants and the way they run their business, ways in which young people are exposed to comparison bait can be changed for the better by beauty brands and influencers, who are equal to social media companies when it comes to being the instigators for content that fuels the insecurities of thousands.

Recently, community-led, Gen Z–focused beauty brand Lottie London pushed the dynamics of inclusivity, as well as lauding difference and individual beauty, turning to their consumers to put themselves forward as the face of the brand in their advertisements and marketing campaigns through an initiative dubbed #Lottiesquad. The brand’s focus on consumer involvement stems from their mantra, "Traditional isn't our thing";  Lottie London rejects celebrities and models in their campaigns, bypassing the toxic portrayal of perfection consistently seen across social platforms.

The idea behind #Lottiesquad came when the Lottie London team noticed a high volume of tagged content across Instagram and TikTok from followers who had been creating innovative looks using the brand's products. Going forward, Lottie London will be asking users on social media to DM to apply to become the stars of #Lottiesquad, with the most recent casting call dropping for their upcoming Halloween campaign.

"At Lottie London, we love our community and always want to ensure we are speaking their language to engage with them correctly. By making the #Lottiesquad the faces of our various campaigns, we hope that our customers see themselves reflected in the marketing and can relate to our brand. The Lottie Squad is all about inclusivity and creativity, and we will never turn anyone away from our doors," says Nora Zukauskaite, Global Marketing Director for Lottie London.

Lottie London selected Nabina Gurung (@naabzy) to be part of the Halloween #Lottiesquad, after the brand found her work through tags on social media. "I'm so excited to be part of the Lottie London Halloween campaign—I love how the brand works with their real consumers and fans. I've been using the Lottie London collections in my looks for a few years and tagging them, so the recognition is amazing," she comments.

Of course, to ensure the industry creates avenues that will uplift Gen Z and help them feel comfortable expressing their true selves on social media, those behind the scenes need to have strong knowledge of what the target consumer desires. With this aim, The Lottie London team created three new positions in their corporate head office in London to organically connect with followers. The newstaff are said to have a strong understanding of the target consumer, with the ability to work alongside fast-paced and influential programs such as TikTok.

Charlotte Knight, CEO of Lottie London, Ciaté London, and Skin Proud, reflected on the brand's values, which have been cemented for years and ultimately lead to campaigns such as #Lottiesquad across Knight's brand portfolio. She tells BeautyMatter, "Our whole idea of being proud of who you are and the skin you're in, comes by encouraging the consumer to stop using filters, and have more confidence in who they are, with real skin; we pledged that we were never going to retouch any of our images."

Another collective paving the way for the rejection of retouching is sustainable skincare brand Junoco. Through their #ToBeHuman campaign, the team at Junoco want to change the experiences people have with the beauty industry after seeing how toxic expectation marketing affects people on a personal level, with a belief that “the preconceived notion of beauty of the last few decades is distorted in a way that hinders acceptance, growth, and individuality.”

To promote skin positivity, Junoco invited a diverse community of forward-thinking leaders with different skin tones, backgrounds, and personalities to be photographed. The key incentive behind the campaign photo shoot was to use “normal people,” not models or social media influencers, with no makeup artists, professional lighting, or stylists, to shine a light on real beauty, capturing real skin in the most natural way. The Junoco team asked the photo shoot attendees what insecurities they were most proud of, stating that, “As a team, it was so refreshing for all of us to see from the community what they thought of themselves without the preconceived expectations of ideal beauty shaping their perceptions.”

While these campaigns are a step in the right direction, 90% of women admit they either filter, edit, or somewhat Photoshop photos before posting online. It is clear that a change is required regarding social media promoting  self-love among its users. Recently, the UK government has called for Photoshop laws to be put in place by apps such as Instagram, with significant work due to come for the Online Safety Bill, which outlines potential responsibilities for tech companies such as limiting "legal but harmful" promoting of content. An example was made by France's 2017 Photoshop law, which demanded digitally retouched photos be labeled with "photographie retouchée" across all commercial images, specifically targeting alterations to the models’ bodies. MPs in the UK have also suggested alternatives to brands’ advertising methods, with potential fines of up to 30% of the advertisement cost for failure to disclose if an image has been retouched.

Despite the government taking a positive step by considering changes to the social media legal landscape, platforms and tech businesses need to change their practices and help promote the mental well-being of their users rather than simply focusing on their profit margins. With Facebook introducing small steps such as allowing users to hide their like counts to help reduce anxiety and social pressure, there are still much bigger steps that need to be taken. Ideally, brands will follow the likes of Lottie London and Junoco, encouraging consumers to embrace their natural beauty rather than looking to social media for guidance. It will require a solid collective effort from the beauty, fashion, and technology industries, as well as the government, to confront, and repair, the damage social media beauty campaigns have on young people. The question remains: How many more research studies and hard-hitting facts need to be presented before real change is made?


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