When Glossier started selling face mist and skin tint in 2014, a devoted fan base was born almost overnight. Loyalists commented on images of Glossier’s highlighters and cream eye shadows with all the zeal of an evangelist: “Dreeeeeamyyy.” “J’adore.” “Stunning.” The comments went on, and on. But this past year, Glossier and its evangelists had a bit of a falling-out. The brand launched a bright make-up line called Play, and the negative pile-on was swift. Play’s Glitter Gelée, a gel pot of paillettes designed to make your eyelids sparkle like disco balls, caused outcries against the non-biodegradable glitter. Eye pencils that arrived individually wrapped in foil and then boxed led to laments about excessive packaging. As one commenter, Elise from Canada, put it, “This kind of thing is not acceptable when there are so many alternative options for product developers!! Stay woke, y’all – we need to keep these companies on their toes!”
As the Play drama unfolded in furious comments and posts across Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, and in YouTube videos adding up to hundreds of thousands of views, I contemplated the impact of the collective complaining, a phenomenon that feels as much a fixture on social media as cat videos. “Calling out a company is low risk – it’s not like calling out your aunt at Christmas about immigration,” says Lisa Nakamura, PhD and director of the Digital Studies Institute at the University of Michigan. “Social media is a playground where everybody, unfortunately, is showing their worst side right now.”
What really matters is separating the minute-by-minute mini soap operas that just serve as entertainment from those actually moving the needle. It was an online uproar when cult beauty brand Tarte released a new foundation with only 15 shades, showing a clear lack of diversity. Especially when compared to fellow brand Fenty Beauty’s 5O shades. This led to the discontinuation and complete reformulation of its Shape Tape Foundation, taking it up to 5O shades under the new Face Tape moniker.
Estée Laundry, an Instagram account run by an anonymous “collective” of beauty superfans with more than 8O,OOO followers, aims to keep the industry in check. (It’s often compared to the fashion watchdog account Diet Prada, the first account to call out creatives copying fellow brands’ designs.) The account gained mainstream attention last autumn after revealing that the beauty brand Sunday Riley had asked employees to plant positive Sephora reviews for some of its products. Estée Laundry prides itself on being the first to point out a brand’s lack of diversity or copycat packaging. “Our aim is to peel off the gloss and give consumers an insider’s glimpse into what really happens in the industry,” Estée Laundry told ELLE via email. “We hope that brands see this as an opportunity to put more emphasis on honesty, transparency and sustainability.”
The beauty industry has been hit hard by this new breed of consumer watchdogs, who have been fighting for extra scrutiny about inclusivity conservation as well as ingredient lists and sources of inspiration. While marketers of yesteryear rarely faced a public court of shaming, many brands, especially independent labels, must often face criticism head-on today. Clean skincare brand Drunk Elephant, a frequent subject of call-outs, came under fire early this year when Chemist Confessions, another investigative beauty account (this one run by two young female chemists), claimed that silicone — among the brand’s supposed no-no ingredients — was indeed in one of its sunscreens. Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson and her team responded to the post’s 232 comments with 24 exasperated replies. “Actually, it’s not a silicone. It’s not sneaky or cheeky. All anyone has to do is ask” as well as “I’m open to hearing and I think from reading this thread that many are misunderstanding the philosophy.”
Then it went one step further: the company also encouraged commenters to join its weekly live Q&A sessions. “Brands are now expected to act on this [feedback] in almost real time because consumers want to see immediate action and results,” Estée Laundry noted. Case in point: an incendiary outcry against Fenty Beauty’s announcement of an upcoming highlighter with the shade name “Geisha Chic” caused the brand to issue an apology and cancel the launch before the product had even hit shelves.
It’s also remarkable that a comment typed into the iPhone of a woman on her couch in the middle of the U.S. can ruffle feathers in a New York City boardroom thousands of miles away. But what social media has done is allowed everyone to have a vocal seat at the table. And, if that sounds like platitude, it’s not. The world’s biggest beauty companies, such as L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, use some of these unfiltered complaints to guide their marketing and product design.
“There were nearly three million points of contact from consumers across our brands and across all channels in 2O18,” says Gretchen Saegh-Fleming, chief marketing officer of L’Oréal USA. “A decade ago, communication was private, one-to-one and primarily limited to the phone. [Today we connect] with customers on up to 10 different channels at any given time. And that’s not only on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — our consumers are getting in touch with us on YouTube and Reddit, and via webchat.”
For Lahnie Strange, senior vice president of makeup marketing and product development at Estée Lauder: “We look at it as a gift,” she says. “Being able to be tuned in every day not only helps me in tweaking existing products, but serves as inspiration for where I can take the business in the future.” In some cases, it informs something as simple as changing the texture of a lip gloss; in other instances, it spurs entirely new ways of developing products from the start, as with L’Oréal-owned Lancôme and its foundation-mixing machine.
“We created a customized foundation technology called Lancôme Le Teint Particulier that can detect and match individual skin tones in minutes,” Saegh-Fleming says. “This was brought about in part by consumer frustration at not being able to locate their exact shade.”
In the case of Glossier, which declined to comment for this story, the company responded publicly within weeks to say that biodegradable glitter was in development and it will phase out some of the excessive packaging. In the months since, it has also introduced a recycling program for its famous pink plastic bubble pouches, and an opt-out option for whether to receive one at all.
Call-outs’ tendency to be effective in its criticism may be because beauty products live at the crossroads of personal and luxury. Our emotional attachment to, and trust in, beauty products is strong, but if that bond is broken, there are always substitutes to replace our once-beloved buys. Which makes them a perfect target for taking a stand against. It becomes an easy formula for expressing your opinion. Think about it… When’s the last time you actually tweeted a tech giant about its use of cheap labour to make your mobile phone?
While the Glossier kerfuffle ensued over its new Glossier Play brand, I compulsively refreshed the Instagram comments to spy on incoming bits of drama: “Hope this side brand flops —not Glossier, not eco, not fun. This is 2O19 and there is not a single reason other than greed to not use biodegradable glitter.”
But then I looked down. With nails painted in five coats of sparkling silver flecks, I was (literally) wagging a glitter-coated finger. The glitter wasn’t biodegradable, and the revelation didn’t result in the upending of my entire beauty cabinet. Admittedly, my resistance to a brand’s objectionable practices seems to have its limits somewhere around the borders of convenience.
“Call-out culture is like a one-year-old learning to walk. It’s a struggle,” says Nakamura. “But, on the other hand, what’s the alternative – never walking? This culture is what we have, right now. It allows us to take our own moral temperature, to put a mirror to ourselves and our society. And that’s a good thing.”