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Chemical Reaction: Cognitive Dissonance

Steve Herman

“Consumer preference and motivation is far less influenced by the tangible attributes of product and service than the subconscious sensory and emotional elements derived by the total experience.” —Gerald Zaltman

Most products are what they claim to be and do what they claim they do—shampoos are shampoos and clean hair; lotions are lotions and moisturize skin. However, a few brand owners employ a manipulative marketing strategy called cognitive dissonance. In this realm, a product is not used for its intended purpose, and that disconnect becomes the key to its success. The consumer is in on a secret, a vital key to the product’s appeal. Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the discomfort felt at a discrepancy between what is already known or believed and new information or interpretation. The theory, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956, holds that the presence of irreconcilable ideas creates a motivating force that leads to the adjustment of one’s beliefs to fit one’s behavior instead of changing one’s behavior to express one’s beliefs.

The use of Preparation H as an eye cream is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. The product has contained two natural ingredients for decades—live yeast cell derivative (LYCD) and shark liver oil. The live yeast cell derivative has been used to combat wrinkles for many years. However, the original formulation no longer is used in the United States but still is available in Canada, creating a black market for the Canadian product. Although it doesn’t have fancy packaging, exotic fragrance or premium pricing, it attracts consumers. The attraction is that it is not marketed for eye care, and makes the consumer a beauty insider.

Another example of dissonance is the use of New Generation Shampoo to combat baldness. The magic ingredient is polysorbate 60. The company Web site is full of information and testimonials, but this disclaimer is buried in the hype:

“New Generation does not attempt to prescribe for treatment of hair loss in any form. Ways to fight baldness are explored, giving you the advantage of extensive knowledge of causes of hair loss and hair growth ... ” Yet consumers continue to believe in it—a triumph of hope in a miracle cure without the expense of more conventional treatment.

The Animal Treatment Concept

For some reason, and it must involve dissonance, many consumers believe that products made for animals are more beneficial than products created for people. Mane and Tail shampoo is based on the proposition that horse hair is three times thicker than human hair; if the product produces positive results on manes, it should be equally productive on human hair. The implication extends beyond cleaning: “We have had many people contact us with reports of hair growth and faster growing hair.” The animal treatment concept also extends to the naming of their skin and nail treatment, Hoofmaker, although the formulation does not seem to derive from a hoof product.

If formulations for horses are good, imagine products made for cows. Two lines spawned from this source are Bag Balm and Udder Cream. Bag Balm has been around for a century as an animal product. Sales of Bag Balm skyrocketed when famed CBS reporter Charles Kuralt told the Bag Balm story in 1983 as one of his feature segments for his On the Road series. The main claim of Bag Balm simply is the soothing of minor cuts and abrasions. Udder Cream puts specific emphasis on its heavy dose of lanolin to restore moisture and smooth dry, chapped skin.

Creating an Intentional Dissonance

There are people who put mayonnaise on their skin, use fabric softeners as insect repellants and believe that if products are beneficial when ingested, they must be equally valuable when applied to the skin. Examples include the anti-inflammatory ingredients glucosamine and chondroitin. Although there are many glucosamine creams on the market, any cream-based or topical products that use glucosamine should be viewed with caution. Putting it in a cream form only sells the product by leveraging the known effectiveness of orally dosed glucosamine, but does nothing to get the glucosamine inside the body where it can be the most beneficial.

A prime example of this dissonance is StriVectin-SD. StriVectin, marketed by Klein-Becker, hit the stores in August 2002 as a product clearly intended to reduce stretch marks caused by pregnancy. By 2004, its department store sales reached US$64 million, with the 6 oz size priced around US$135. That may imply a lot of stretch marks, but consumers actually were using it on facial wrinkles. The trend was encouraged by Klein-Becker, with a new slogan introduced in February 2003: “Better Than Botox.” This featured a treatment well known to consumers but in a form that was less expensive and did not involve a needle.

StriVectin’s package has a medicinal design and only mentions stretch marks, creating an intentional dissonance between the marketing message and the packaging message. The active component of StriVectin is Striadril Complex, the components of which are shown in Table 1. The key ingredient is palmitoyl pentapeptide-3, which is the active ingredient in several brands of advanced skin treatment products. It is StriVectin’s packaging, lack of direct wrinkle-treatment claims, and insider-secret mystique that sets it apart and fuels its commercial success.

Klein-Becker and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration are in discussions regarding the “Better Than Botox” slogan and the drug-like claims of StriVectin. This reminds us of the ultimate cognitive dissonance of our industry—the cosmeceutical category, a US$12.4 billion sector that officially doesn’t exist. Leon Festinger would remind us that the presence of irreconcilable ideas creates a motivating force that leads to the adjustment of our beliefs to fit our behavior. Consequently, we believe in cosmeceuticals.


  • B Walker, Smooth Move, The New York Times Magazine, March 27, 2005

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