Saturday, January 30, 2010

On culture, perception, and lotion.

When it comes to lotion, this stuff is the best. It's getting my poor cracked, dry little paws through this horrid Chicago winter, buttery soft and smooth. Bliss Body Butter, available online and at W Hotels. For reals, it's so wonderful. And, not a client. I've always thought that the best, most luxurious lotion is the thickest and richest. It's chemistry, right?

Nope. It's marketing.

I first fell head over heels for advertising when I was just a pup, probably about 12 or 13 years old. I didn't know it at the time, but a conversation I had with my chemist father about lotion in Tokyo sparked romance. And they called it puppy love...

My dad was head of R&D at a prominent global personal care manufacturer, with the majority of their distribution in Asia and the Americas. The personal care category refers to hair, makeup and skin care, which stood for Most Excellent Profession Ever, to a pre-teen little lady. He was always bringing home goodies for me to sample, pretty much the ideal set-up (this probably explains a lot). Needless to say, I was pretty bummed when he eventually took a job elsewhere.

On this particular day, I had put in a special request for some really good lotion; it was deep in the depths of a Michigan winter, and my hands were starting to crack and bleed. My dad, wonderful man, brought me home a plethora of lotions from a trade show he'd just attended in Tokyo. I thanked him, but ran back to Dad with complaints when I went to soothe my hands and discovered that the lotion was the consistency of milk.

My brilliant father explained to me that in Asian cultures, the most luxurious lotions are the lightest and milkiest, based on how Asian skin reacts to skin care products. He went on to explain that the emollient, or moisturizing agent in the thick American lotion was the same as it was in this milky version. It was only the thickening agent that had been tweaked. To the chemist, a purely aesthetic and marketing-based adjustment, this. But to the consumer, a vital one, as the feel of the product is seen as the most important quality of a lotion.

I didn't understand, at such a tender age, that this was advertising. But I do remember that it blew my *N'Sync-lovin' mind to think that there were people out there changing the chemical makeup of products not to alter the product, but to meet the needs of a culture. I remember the feeling of being truly and utterly fascinated by this thought.

People are fascinating. I feel very blessed to work in an industry where I get to search for and explore cultural fascinations all the live-long day. Thanks, Pops, for your assistance in finding a passion. And, thanks for all the lotion.


  1. This made me remember about a fascinating essay I read last year; someone @ MIT wrote it about Shiseido and cultural characteristics of cosmetics throughout Japanese history. So interesting!! Selling Shiseido: Cosmetics Advertising & Design In Early 20th-Century Japan. Enjoy!

  2. Nice insight. It reminds me of the fact that researchers have found that orange juice tastes better when it's bright orange. Or yogurt is better when it's described as full fat. Or Coke is better out of a branded container.

  3. Johanna - so weird! I can't remember if these were Sheseido products, but my dad did a lot of work with Sheseido during this time period. Thanks so much for sharing this article - I've always had a thing for Japanese cosmetics, given my upbringing.

    Matt - Thanks for the comment! I had never heard that about Coke and the branded container, that's hilarious! Oh, humans... we are so silly.