Mouthwash and Shame-Marketing: Proactiv be Damned

Welcome to Part 4.

This post is the conclusion of a running story about my childhood with acne, and it is the strongest of all four parts. If you somehow got to this one first, just stay here. Previously on “This Blog”, I compared watching Proactiv ads, as a kid with acne, to seeing the Hindenburg burn from the perspective of another blimp.

Below: my answer to the company that made me fear commercials.

Comedy Central. Cartoon Network. MTV.

They knew where to find us.

Proactiv’s marketing team found the stomping grounds of the inflamed and dissatisfied, and they slammed those channels with content.

Slots between Cribs and Tosh.0 teemed with beautiful young adults, teens who supposedly represented everything I could be.

[Cue clips of Alex, Kaylee and Cory — just like me]

“My skin feels so much cleaner. I actually do get a lot of compliments because of Proactiv. I’m actually looking at my reflection now, and I love it.”

They hit us with boys, they hit us with girls.

Some hair was straight, and others had curls.

In came the testimonials from the once-burning blimps.

Alex, Kaylee and Cory had found a way to quench their fires, and now I could too, for a cool $19.95+S&H.

“Is anyone actually buying this?” I thought to myself. “Anyone with acne knows there is no overnight panacea, no two-week okay-you’re-done-now.”

It’s the same shit, different bottle, ya’mean?

But no, reader. No one ya’mean’ed.

The American public refused to ya’mean.

In 2014, Proactiv ranked #1 on Mental Floss’ Top 10 Best-Selling Infomercial Products, with an estimated revenue of $1 billion. It beat out the combined revenues of P90X and the Snuggie, the two opposing poles of the infomercial wasteland.

Every year, Proactiv pours a fifth of those earnings back into its production budget to fund celebrity endorsements and prime-time spots, all for the unified purpose of making people feel uncomfortable enough to buy their product. At least, as a guy whose face landed firmly in the “Before” category, that’s how it felt.

Proactiv ads work because their target demographic is extremely clear. (we’re having p(h)un). Everyone watching their commercials knows exactly who they’re for, which sets Proactiv apart from, let’s say, an automotive company like Ford.

When watching a Ford commercial, it would be odd to think, “Man, Frank needs a Fusion, and he needs it now.” But replace “a Fusion” with “Proactiv”, and the thought becomes a little less strange. This is because the absence of a Ford in a friend’s life is scarcely ever detectable. But the presence of acne, as Proactiv knows, is an inescapable reality in cultures where not everyone’s a luchador.

Sorry Geoff, the world’s not ready.

Proactive deals in faces — things we see all the time.

In the span of a passing hello between friends, both parties leave with a sense of the other’s complexion.

But take that friend to a leisurely dinner out. Really wine ‘n dine them.

Even after hours of “heart-to-hearting” — which I’m sad exists as a phrase — chances are you’ll still have no idea what your friend drives.

It could be a Ford, or he might be from New York.

My point is that no one can gauge what type of vehicle you have just by looking at you. Not without being a dick, anyways.

“I agree with the above point.”

And because vehicle-ownership isn’t a constant presence in our social lives, the automotive industry has to work hard to make sure it’s not forgotten.

remember me.

Ford can justify its billion-dollar marketing budget because people don’t wake up every morning desperately aching for an F-150.

A man’s dearth of Fiestas doesn’t affect his self-esteem, and Ford’s commercials certainly don’t provoke a flare of hot shame for anyone in the room lacking six tons of automotive testosterone.

Jeep-freaks and Honda-heads alike can sit through hours of Ford commercials without breaking a sweat.

But Proactiv? Their company’s success depends on that sweat.

People think about their acne nonstop because it comes with them everywhere they go.

It’s such a visual, apparent problem that it seems like overkill for Proactiv to spend 20% of its earnings pointing out something we already know to fear. Well, that would be true if Proactiv didn’t have to compete with the Internet’s endless rabbit-holes of over- and under- the counter treatments. There are dozens of cosmetic chemicals out there, each packaged into hundreds of different bottles.

Are you finding everything you need?

If Proactiv wants continued growth, it must thrust itself into the zeitgeist just like any other business, and it would be unfair to fault a company for sheer brand saturation.

But what about its message? We can definitely fault a company for that.

Proactiv may manufacture bottles of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, but their 10-figure salary owes nine of those figures to their main export. Fear.

They capture anxiety and broadcast it to homes nationwide.  They sell breakdowns before prom pictures and moments in front of lockers when friends ask, “Why don’t you wash your face?”

While most sales involve pointing out a problem we didn’t know we had – how are you going to tow an oak across state lines without our truck? – Proactiv finds itself in the deviously fortunate position of only having to exacerbate consumers’ existing insecurities. They accomplish this via purposeful self-deprecation, wherein the current user of the product shits on his or her former self in order to portray how much better-off they are with Proactiv.

Consider these sponsored opinions, noting that each woman is alluding to her “Before” picture:

“This is sad Jillian, [points to photo] and even though I have tears in my eyes (they’re tears of happiness), this is happy Jillian [points to self]” – Jillian, 30.

“I mean, it’s just a different person. I’m glad it’s not me. I’m glad it’s not me anymore.” – Jodi, 33.

“Look at my face. [looks at her face] I’m very depressed.”– Kara, 24.

With the testimonials combined, a very clear protagonist-antagonist relationship emerges:

“We, the users of Proactiv, are the heroes, and they, our former selves, the enemies. We are the normal, they the disturbed. We are the healed, and they are the lepers.” — The Girls.

Well, that’s all fine and good if Jill, Jodi, and Kara are only referring to their former selves, but it’s not so empowering when every poor, burning blimp watching at home realizes that past-Jill and former-Jodi represent their current states.

The problem with Proactiv isn’t its pre-eminence or even its variable success-rate, for which prominent acne-treatment site Facing Acne awards Proactiv three out of five stars. (Proactiv ranked #7 on a list of non-prescription acne treatments). The problem with Proactiv is the brand’s reckless stigmatization of anyone without clear skin.

“If you’re not with us, you’re probably crying in a bathroom,” the commercials seem to say.

To the sad souls for whom Proactiv doesn’t work, it’s tough to shake the disgrace by which Proactiv sells its wares.

Think of all those pitiful little Hindenburg’s who expectantly took a “Before” picture only to find two months later that their “After” shot was painfully similar?

“Try our product for 60 days, and if you don’t like what you see, good luck making friends, you monster!”

While prying open insecurities to capitalize on public shame is frankly pretty shitty, it’s hardly new. In the late 1920’s, Listerine forwent revamping its product-line in favor of rebranding the problem its mouthwash solved: namely, bad breath. In the early 20’s, bad breath took on the more menacing, medical-sounding “halitosis” and transformed “a bothersome personal imperfection into an embarrassing medical condition that urgently required treatment,” writes Laura Clark for Smithsonian Mag.

In his book, which has a way-too-long title, Roland Marchand ascribes Listerine’s success to basic fear-mongering. They created an unfortunate disease, and I use that term lightly, that precipitated the creation of “over a hundred new diseases,” which included bromodosis (smelly feet), acidosis (sore stomach) and “homotosis” (a lack of attractive home furnishings) in obvious attempts to mimic Listerine’s success. Even more influential in Listerine’s success, writes Marchand, was the consumer’s elevation to the level of protagonist upon using the product.

Consider the headline to this Listerine ad that ran in 1928:


Yes, quite blunt.

Here’s the introductory paragraph:


Sound familiar?  Since the 20’s, we’ve progressed in subtlety – or regressed in directness, if you prefer ­– but the message is the same: if you do not buy this product, you will become a hermit, regardless of consent.

But it’s just sales. This is how it has to be. The tactic of “selling the problem you solve, not the product,” is always going work, especially when “the problem” is someone’s self-worth.

Nothing is going to change, because nothing has to.

Besides, Proactiv is right. Having acne is objectively worse than having clear skin.

I can romanticize all I want about the tact, wit, and other intangibles I gained through my formative years, but truth be told, I would have probably ended up the same with or without those pimples.

Acne’s a horrible thing, and the only reason I’ve fought Proactiv so hard is because I resent the fact that I used their same chemicals and didn’t metamorphosize into a self-actualized woman like Jodi, Jill, and Kara.

Overall, Proactiv is a good thing. It widens the divide between the blotted and the fair-skinned, but at least their products help some of the former bridge the gap to the latter.

Still, I can’t help but feel a pang of contempt for the ones who crossed the divide only to look back and sneer at the flightless, burning blimps they left behind.

Postface: If you liked this piece, follow this blog! There should be a button somewhere that says Follow. Go find it!

If you were utterly turned-off by the arrogance of a four-part blog post, I understand! You’re stern but fair. We like people like that here. Why don’t you go ahead and still hit that Follow button.


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