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SK-II, a luxury skin care brand best known for an “essence” that smells vaguely fishy and costs up to $290 a bottle, has a new hashtag: #INeverExpire.
The first thing I thought of was death. It’s the euphemism of choice in hospitals when someone dies. “Mr. Jones expired at 10:51 am,” the doctor will write in the medical record. Death and skin care — seems about right.
This hashtag is part of a new campaign, started in Asia and just introduced to the US, which includes a video called “The Expiry Date.” In it, three young women are born with expiration dates printed on their arms. Age 30 is seemingly the end. While dramatic music plays, the three young women — did I mention they’re very young? — navigate dates, the gym, and the club glumly, presumably because they are about to turn 30 and will soon expire. That’s my very simplistic understanding of it anyway.
At the end, though, as the music crescendos, the voiceover lady says, “Can we change destiny by changing our thoughts?” Then the following words appear on the screen: “You are more than your age. Don’t let others put an expiry date on you.” The very young women suddenly perk up and look determined. The one at dinner with a date stomps out. Empowerment! My eyes rolled up so high in my head I gave myself a wrinkle.
This message comes too late for me. Speaking in terms of expiration, I, a woman much closer in age to 50 than 30, am the equivalent of an E. coli-laced bag of romaine lettuce that’s been sitting around for a good three weeks. Recall me immediately.
For some context, SK-II is a Japanese brand acquired by the beauty and personal care conglomerate P&G in the early ’90s. It has a huge customer base throughout Asia. In 2016, it released an admittedly powerful video to the Chinese market called “The Marriage Market Takeover.” In that country, and throughout parts of Asia, women who are unmarried after the age of 25 are referred to as “leftover women” and other derogatory terms. In covering this current campaign, a marketing website cited a bunch of survey statistics about the pressures women in Asia experience related to age, and 30 is a sort of touchpoint. So there are cultural and geopolitical forces at play here that I definitely haven’t lived or experienced, and I want to acknowledge that.
But SK-II is now introducing its campaign to the US with a series of five new videos featuring American women talking about the original video and their experiences of aging and pressure. “The #INeverExpire initiative addresses the topic of age-related pressure, inspiring women to liberate themselves from societal expectations around age and live their lives on their own terms,” says the website. “SK-II is shedding light on the fact that age-related pressure impacts women everywhere, with different nuances around the world. The US campaign is launching with a series of empowering videos, bringing to life the authentic age-related pressures experienced by real women.”
These women are actress Chloe Bennet (26), former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth (31), fashion blogger Aimee Song (36), DJ Lauren “Kittens” Abedini (20-something), and Girlboss Sophia Amoruso (34). These women represent quite a marked age difference from SK-II’s longtime spokesperson Cate Blanchett, who is now 48 and has been with the brand since she was in her 30s. She hasn’t appeared on SK-II’s Instagram since February 2016 or given an interview about the brand since the end of 2017, when she appeared at a press event to promote some very millennial-looking painted bottles with inspirational quotes on them. (SK-II did not respond to my inquiry about Blanchett’s current status with the brand.) Model Behati Prinsloo (28) is a newer face of SK-II.
This all annoys me on several levels. While I know this is an exercise in futility, it’s infuriating that women are given the message that they should take it all into their own hands and change their thinking, rather than society changing their expectations, which is the correction that should be happening. I’m asking a lot from skin care, I know.
This ad also further cements my assertion from 2016 that the beauty industry does not care about Gen X. Of course I know there is age-related pressure on women of all ages. (At least I’m nowhere near the incel movement’s radar.) But talking about a woman’s expiration date without also acknowledging the pressures experienced by, let’s face it, the women who are likely SK-II’s biggest customer base feels really gross and like a super-transparent play to snag that all-important millennial audience just as their crow’s feet are beginning to form.
Women in their 40s and older already feel forgotten and invisible. A skin care company not including this demographic in its big global push to shine a light on age pressure is just laughable. Childbearing and work expiration dates come much later, and dating — and its horrors — seemingly never ends.
In a piece on Medium, Chelsea G. Summers notes how odd it is watching young women debate skin care, especially since older women are buying it for very primal and pragmatic reasons. But this is what the beauty industry does. “Marketing has long been the game of the Youngs because advertisers want to capture people’s brand allegiance early, but when what you’re marketing is skin care, you’re selling anti-aging to the unaged,” Summers writes. “It’s an eldritch venture, a cynical undertaking that uses fear and loathing to sell a performance of self-love.”
That is exactly what this is: fear, masked as empowerment. SK-II never mentions its products at all but it is essentially planting a seed that may or may not already be there: “Huh, maybe 30 is old. Shit.” The brand’s marketing copy reads: “For more than 35 years, SK-II has touched the lives of millions of women around the world by helping them to #ChangeDestiny through the miracle of crystal clear skin.” Ah. The brand is counting on you to make that subconscious association here. Unfair societal age pressure? Crystal-clear skin is the answer!
Maybe I’m coming off as the get-off-my-lawn old person here, but I feel somewhat vindicated because my younger colleagues agreed with me. As millennials in their mid-20s to mid-30s, they all expressed a healthy degree of cynicism about this campaign. “What should I do with my remaining 24 months on the planet,” wrote a 28-year-old on Slack. Another imagined the conversation around the conference table at SK-II headquarters: “We want women to feel good, but of course they die at 30, so let’s start there.”
At the end of the day, I’m still a skin care enthusiast. I want my skin to look nice. I suppose I should just be happy I’m already expired and not being actively marketed to.