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Location: Ann Arbor, MI // Madrid, Spain

Sunday, October 09, 2005

"Advanced Formula"

Rarely am I sincerely confused or genuinely annoyed by the marketing materials of commonplace products. Vaseline's marketing on its Advanced Lip Therapy Skin Protectant is intolerable.

To me, marketing is story-telling. It should tell you something not only about the product itself, but about how that product relates to you. Everyone knows that Herbal Ecstacy is not going to release dopamine in females to the extent their commercials might suggest. But a shower is nevetheless relaxing, a feeling that is reinforced by the smell of a familiar product. We know that eating Go-Gurt or drinking a Capri Sun won't make thirteen year olds ridiculous soccer stars or skateboardering legends, but how many CEOs do you see drinking Capri Suns? Consumers' perceptions of a product are essential concerns of the marketer who, in turn, shapes or utilizes these perceptions through marketing efforts. Yet, when the consumer is standing in the shampoo/drink aisle of the grocery store, he knows that the magical story about this product is incomplete. A tube with yoghurt is novel, but, hey, is it really that different from the timeless cup and spoon? To me, it is not, but my answer is of little use to someone else. What is important is that the consumer asks the question. Staring at 45 distinct shampoo products, the consumer is going to ask himself, "Is this specific shampoo really all that different? I remember the ad, but I like this one for damaged hair, that seems more 'me', and I'm sure they all smell good, so I'm not really losing out." A lot of the initial magic of the first marketer's story is taken out of the product when the monopoly on the consumer's time is broken-the consumer can directly compare the products on his own time.

Of course, marketers know that this monopoly on attention will nearly always be broken and therefore design packaging to dissuade customers from buying other products, convincing the consumer that, for him, their product is really the best. It may not be worth the extra money to buy herbal essence over generic with the same ingredients and not buy into the fantasy of the former, but it does not strike me as dishonesty on the part of marketers to try to convice the consumer of the contrary. Compare the former with the packaging of Vaseline's Advanced Formula lip therapy. Set against a white background and in contrast to the surrounding dark letters is the description of the "formula" as "Advanced." Various possibilities exist, at least in my mind, as to what might make a particular lip balm advanced (or its formula): e.g., a higher SPF rating, aloe vera, chemicals that allow you to apply it less often, a map of the human genome, et. al. A lip balm with those characteristics would seem advanced to me. What does not seem like an advanced formula for a lip balm? One with the following ingredients:

Active ingredient: White Petrolatum USP (100%)
Inactive ingredient: Flavor

What?! How is that in any way an "Advanced Formula"? It now has flavor?? Is this an improvement over any previous lip balm developed by Vaseline or anyone else? Is it even an advancement over original Vaseline considering that their active ingredients are identical? Congratulations to the research department over at Vaseline for figuring out and effectively applying the complex science behind adding "Flavor" to white petrolatum USP. Check out the difference between Vaseline Baby and Vaseline? Fragrance. Although Vaseline doesn't describe the formula of the former as "advanced," I'm thinking that has more to do with the different reactions of a new mother or someone with chapped lips considering themselves duped into buying something more than vasoline with fragrance. Using the word "advanced" to describe the formula for a lip balm doesn't even pass the laugh test.

The word "advanced," of course, can also be used as an adjective meaning that something was proposed or put forth by someone. To that end, I am confident that the formula can be described as advanced in all honesty. In fact, I am willing to bet that at some point in time someone at Vaseline said, "hey, lets add flavor to vaseline, put it in a tube, call it an advanced formula lip protectant, place it next to more expensive products whose original 'formula' does not refer simply to vaseline, and watch the money come in." Jerks.


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