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Hey Burt's Bees, Who're You Callin' Ugly?

Burt’s Bees adRecently, I’ve seen a series of ads run by health and beauty products company Burt’s Bees in various fashion magazines. Based on a quick check of the web (see here or here, for instance), it has certainly accomplished what it set out to do–to get people talking about Burt’s Bees stuff. But one of the statements in those ads is unfair, and I hope I don’t find more like it.

Burt’s Bees says it designed the ad campaign as a way to encourage consumers to learn about the ingredients in beauty products and to discern what is truly natural and renewable from what isn’t.

What irks me about the ad I’ve shown is one of the supposed cons of DMDM hydantoin, a preservative used in moisturizers and other beauty products. “Short for 1,3-Dimethylol-5,5-Dimethyl Hydantoin, its uglier name.”

Now, I’m all for describing the pros and cons of the products that come out of chemistry labs. Products developed with the best of intentions have turned out to have dire consequences (see, for example, thalidomide). I agree with most of the ad’s content–for instance, formaldehyde is, in fact, a suspected carcinogen. But calling a chemical’s scientific name ugly, and then inferring that that’s somehow a suspicious aspect of an ingredient, is hitting below the belt.

This ad clearly takes advantage of consumers who are unfamiliar with the standard naming system that chemists use just to have another bullet point in the “bad” column.

In case anyone who isn’t a chemist is reading, chemists give molecules names using a standardized system designed by the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). IUPAC designed a system for naming all the molecular components of everything on Earth so that scientists from different countries would be able to communicate with each other using a common naming language.

Now, here’s what’s unfair about the Burt’s Bees ad. The IUPAC system has a complex-sounding name for just about every component of milk and honey, too. But it’s impossible for anyone to know that without having a certain background in the naming system. Take glucose, one of the pieces of ordinary table sugar and something that can be found in both milk and honey. Its IUPAC name is something like (2R,3R,4S,5R,6R)-6-(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydro-2H-pyran-2,3,4,5-tetraol. It’s not ugly, it’s just a standardized name for something, much like how humans are scientifically known as Homo sapiens.

I don’t think this should stop you from buying whatever lip gloss you want, but it’s important to understand how ads are designed to tug at our feelings. (At least, that’s what I learned from watching Mad Men.)

If any readers out there have seen similar ads (for any company), please let us know.

Image from burtsbees.com

11 Comments

  • Oct 30th 200805:10
    by rob

    They are not the first so-called “green” company to suggest that its ingredients are not chemicals. Green & Blacks did it with a chocolate campaign a few years ago in the UK.

  • Oct 30th 200808:10
    by chad

    This type of thinking is common among the public and in the environmentalist crowd in particular: chemicals are bad and “synthetic” chemicals are worse. They lob the words “toxic” and “carcinogenic” around with little idea of what this means, or that the dose makes the poison, or that virtually anything they have ever touched, eaten, seen or smelled contains lots of these nasty dangerous chemicals with scary-sounding names, whether “natural” or not.

  • Oct 30th 200809:10
    by Carmen Drahl

    I often feel that way, too. I guess the question becomes – what’s the best way to inform people about “natural”, “synthetic”, “organic”, etc? Chemistry’s certainly not the only discipline that has this information challenge (see, for instance, the vaccine community). Maybe some well-placed public service announcements?

  • Oct 30th 200811:10
    by Klug

    The chemical industry (Dow, etc.) seems to have been doing those sorts of PSAs for years, without avail. I’m not hopeful. Biology and nanotech aren’t faring much better in terms of not scaring the public, for that matter.

  • Oct 30th 200811:10
    by Carmen Drahl

    True that, but maybe the fact that the PSA’s come from a company is part of the problem, since a consumer might think that the company only cares about hawking their wares, and not trust the message.

  • Nov 3rd 200814:11
    by Dave Gibboni

    Look, advertisers DEPEND upon consumer ignorance and loopholes in regulation to succeed in their tasks. And frankly many consumers wallow in the gauzy, comforting notion of “natural.”

  • Nov 4th 200809:11
    by rob

  • Nov 14th 200802:11
    by Aaron Rowe

    People who cringe when they see complicated things, like an equation with Greek symbols or an IUPAC name, seem to be inherently uncomfortable with science. Perhaps there is some sort of genetic trait or facet of the human mind that could be described as comfort in the face of complexity.

  • Jan 5th 200915:01
    by Josh Kurutz

    I’d like to comment on the mention of thalidomide – a chemical created with fair intentions but poor testing in its development stage. While many people know of its horrific unintended teratogenic effects, it was eventually discovered to be a very effective treatment for leprosy. After it was found effective against a common malady of AIDS patients (Kaposi’s sarcoma, I think). In the 1980′s, AIDS activists were staging demonstrations to demand that they get access to thalidomide, as they felt it was their only hope.

    Public reaction to “chemicals” swings across a wide spectrum. It seems that, if a compound can save lives, hugh numbers of people will demand that it be cheap and available. In the case of a lotion, where the impact on life may not be as significant and “natural” alternatives feel like they do the job, sentiment goes the opposite way.

    Is there any middle ground? How can this amplified oscillation be damped? I don’t have a good answer, but clearly rational explanation aren’t going to do it alone. It requires emotional appeal.

  • Jan 5th 200915:01
    by Josh Kurutz

    P.S.: For further information on thalidomide, read “Dark Remedy”, by Rock Brynner and Trent Stephens

  • [...] long ago, C&ENtral Science called out skincare and beauty product company Burt’s Bees, pointing to an ad that seemed to equate [...]

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