Why does every direct-to-consumer digital startup employ the same marketing team? I’m tired of baby colors and distinctive fonts trying to sell me things I already own. I get that what’s hot and fresh and hip and cute and wannabe-able is a fickle tide, so you should stick with your competitors because if you suck, then at least everyone sucks with you. Conformity as a survival tactic — whatever. But if I see another startup make something Unilever already makes at twice the markup, I’ll riot.
Function of Beauty makes custom shampoo; Away makes pretty luggage; quip makes elegant electric toothbrushes; Casper makes mattresses convenient; Bombas makes philanthropic socks — the list never ends. Pick a single word — could be real, could be nonsense, doesn’t have to be topical. Pick a positive adjective. Pick a household item. Extra points for greenwashing. I’m going to play my own pitch-your-startup Mad Libs: Flamingo makes razors that are better for you and the Earth. All I need is an AngelList entry until I’m a real business, baby!
As it turns out, Flamingo is a real business. Its “About Us” page says, “We know that the overlooked edges of our bodies can become the cornerstones of our experience.” Aw, cute. I’m glad your copywriter knows what body dysmorphia is. I feel a little bad about making fun of them because hey, it’s a nice sentiment: corporate acknowledgment that women are people. But then I remember how actually unempowering it is to assume a power pose while applying Secret deodorant, and I’m annoyed again.
Really, my qualm with every white 20-something in a major metropolitan area getting a million-dollar seed round isn’t that I’m happy with my Procter & Gamble flagship detergent, dish soap, moisturizer and household. At the end of the day, I’m not unassailable. I, too, hold just a sliver of faith, but a sliver nonetheless, that taking Function of Beauty’s quiz about my lifestyle and habits will gain me access to Pantene model hair. I do ultimately believe that businesses arise to fill vacuums in our lives, and that can be all fine and dandy when what I want is a not-ugly electric toothbrush or socks that don’t launch me back to the time a cockroach crawled out of my sneaker in eighth-grade PE.
But, as with all things, the messaging starts to get dicey with the marketing.
There is a certain, not-so-secret formula that is the skeleton key to the wallet of any yuppie with “NYC|SF” in their Instagram bio. It’s the plug-and-chug Mad Libs for design teams specializing in fledgling brands. It goes like this: Choose a color palette no one has ever used before, unless you’re a brand for men, in which case, use only the colors Dockers pants come in. Then, choose a font (extra points if it’s just a little wacky). Again, if you’re a unisex or quote-unquote men’s brand, the safe route is conservatism (but that’s not a principle we’re out honking in the streets).
Chances are you’ve already seen this formula employed in your Instagram feed. Glossier nailed this equation — its marketing team probably blew some poor analyst’s earnings forecast when it made it impossible for dainty tweenagers and freelancing creatives alike to go on without that perfect baby pink. In fact, Glossier’s visual messaging was so potent it accidentally-on-purpose launched a new paradigm in beauty advertising: People with doe lashes and quote-unquote boy brows don’t need transfiguring makeup, just enhancing makeup. Don’t worry. You’re already pretty, so why wear lipstick where gloss will do? Beauty is — get this — inherent. (But you still need Glossier to unlock it.)
In the internet age, the eye-catching ad is the pure, polished one. It needs to be flatter and more distinctive: You don’t have 30 seconds of engagement to rely on anymore. It needs to cut through the noise of cheese pulls and dogs welcoming returned soldiers home. It needs to send a normative message: Ads of my childhood could exist in the plasma between suburbia and surrealism, today is about buying the thing that makes you the person you want to be.
Today is about buying the thing that makes you the person you want to be. The idea isn’t new; it’s been the premise of consumerism, and especially cosmetics, since time immemorial. It’s just that now you can’t escape. I mean, in the past, you could’ve had the good fortune of illiteracy, which might have spared you from the cocaine in your soda pop, or maybe the luck of poverty that would’ve saved you from purchasing a radioactive watch. It’s the small mercies. The fact that we deal with endless supplications to please spend our money is a testament to how our circumstances have changed.
But riddle me this, kids. I’m not particularly convinced that the life with more advertisements is no worse or even better than the life without them. I’m tired of being told what to do and who to become, to the point that I’ll pay for a good ad-blocker and a virtual private network to stop seeing such alarmingly tailored ads.
We’re stuck on the hamster wheel of venture capital funding the solution to every last unoptimized niche of our lives. The game of cat-and-mouse among startups to direct-to-consumer-ify every single last thing in my bathroom, kitchen and existence is shredding my nerves. To top it all off, their advertisements are making me want to be a prettier, nicer, more capable girl with a razor and a toothbrush and matching socks, which would be a perfectly noble pursuit if I also wanted that for myself.
Where does this all end? The endless bombardment of subliminal messaging on what type of people buy what kinds of things is already eroding some of my personal beliefs, such as “The brand of luggage you own does not make you less or more fun as a person,” and “Pointy plastic bottle flats are cool but not that cool.” I do think if I ever saw an ad that said, “Buy our product or don’t — it’s none of my business,” I would click out of sheer respect alone.
Casey Li writes the Monday column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected]