Makeup Marketing and Beauty Guru Culture

I have been watching "Beauty Gurus" on some form of social media for more than a decade now. Online beauty reviews and blogs have existed for a while, as well as makeup discussion forums like Specktra and later Reddit, but I think YouTube was the ideal platform to launch the current iteration of what we now know as a Beauty Guru (hereafter abbreviated as BG.)

Because makeup is a tactile and visual medium, words only go so far. If you can't be there in person with a makeup artist or fellow makeup lover, video is probably the next best thing. With the explosion in variety of social media platforms over the last several years, BGs have found wider audiences and even greater Internet (and sometimes IRL) fame.

In the past, BGs were either professional makeup artists with some spare time and a flair for video editing, or they were ordinary women/men who dedicated a lot of time to a hobby but maintained a separation between work/real life and their online presence. Before the space exploded, being an Internet BG was a fairly thankless labor of love. The people who had YouTube followings enjoyed a pretty devoted audience and possibly some ad revenue, but the BG machine didn't fully kick off until beauty companies got hip to how powerful a marketing tool these BGs could really be. Sponsored content in the form of free samples of lipstick turned into sponsored vacations, paid-for teeth whitening, and just gradually exbanded to become entrenched in BGs' lifestyles, rather than being confined to the neat little box of a beauty hobby. BGs drink startup artisanal coffee provided gratis from free coffee mugs with sponsor logos, wearing a robe that they reviewed and received affiliate kickback for. All while checking their social media with thousands of adoring followers, who feel a genuine affection for them and contribute to their overall sense of self.

The current climate/status of BGs as "influencers" (to use the sterile and slightly horrifying term) is a case of everyone wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Marketing is rooted in the practice of manipulating the human psyche to bring about desired behavior (in this case, the desired behavior is to buy.) I see a few common ideas about marketing at play in the current BG culture.

The "Trusted Consumer" Opinion

In this example, housewives in the 1950s all across America were sold on New Cleaning Product X because a woman whose life was just like their own told them Product X worked well. Well, our housewife thought, that woman looks just like my sister/mom/friend from down the street. I trust her because she seems like she understands my needs, because they're her needs too. And a million Average Jane commercials and advertisements were born. Companies constantly develop ways to strike that nerve and get their potential customers to feel that someone you trust vouches for it. This impulse ties in to people's group mentality, where acting clannish and having a trustworthy network makes them feel safe and like they belong to a supportive community.

The "Aspirational Figure" Endorsement

In this other method, there was the gorgeous actress, who the same housewife had only ever seen in soft-focus motion pictures and retouched magazine spreads. She was impossibly beautiful, cosmopolitan, and has everything our housewife dreams of, though she lives in Ohio, has an insurance salesman husband, and struggles with uneven skintone. But wait, the actress has now endorsed and credited Face Cream Y for her flawless complexion. Even if our housewife can't have the actress' entire life, she can obtain a small slice of it. And that  makes the purchase of Face Cream Y a transformative, hopeful act. It's rooted in the desire to be like someone else because you think their life is superior to yours in some way(s.) Humans react in patterns of behavior that allow us to be manipulated by certain tricks. This is not reserved for people of the past, or women, it's all of us.

The Modern Beauty Guru

So that brings us to today. We know for a fact that companies use BGs to market to us. We understand that they are often the personable mouthpiece for multiple faceless corporations. But are they The Trusted Consumer? Why yes, girl, they have man troubles, they eat pizza in their sweatpants, they struggle existentially. How terrifically relatable- they are just like you! But wait...aren't they also kind of celebrities? They get flown around on glamorous vacations, they have no ordinary 9-to-5 job, and they have impeccably-curated and polished appearances (excepting those #important notable exceptions when there's a #nomakeup hashtag floating around and participating to show vulnerability has a greater positive impact on their brand image than a few un-aspirational sunspots would.)

Beauty Guru Culture has transformed into this monolithic marketing machine that is basically the apex of manipulation. It inspires a Golden Ticket feel in ordeinary girls and women. Nowadays you might not imagine you'll ever be a movie star or like one- that hardly seems achievable...but you can easily imagine becoming like any of the thousands of "Internet-famous" gurus who have devoted fan followings, free shopping trips, handsome boyfriends, and overall "polished" and enviable lives. BGs and their sponsorships/brand partners are trying to have their cake and eat it too, by presenting figures who speak simultaneously to that "trusted compatriot" urge and to the aspirational "I want her life" vibe. We all want to feel connected to others. Sometimes we want the equivalent of a friend who will commiserate with our troubles. Sometimes we want someone to emulate, who will inspire us to become greater. Both of these aspects are manipulated expertly by companies who make good use of BG sponsorships and partnerships. BGs hit that sweet, enticing spot between "just like you" and "better than you."

Why Do I Care?

It's important to understand how people are manipulating you, not so you can become a reclusive off-the-grid type who buys nothing, but so that you can start to weigh your own emotional and psychological responses against what you actually can afford and need to acquire. It's not only that companies want to manipulate us in this way, it's that we like to be manipulated in this subtler, more deft manner, which is what ultimately makes it so effective and insidious.

I actually enjoy the current climate and saturation of the BG market. There's a ton of value for me as amakeup consumer for me to visit a store in-person to see the newest shade a company releases. I can usually find multiple BGs with my skintone or skintype to compare reviews. I'm not over here tearing my hair out over BGs and their existence. They're not "good" or "bad," they exist and they exist in their current form for good reason. They're useful for companies, and enjoyable for consumers. We crave the beauty humans always have, but many of us have become so self-conscious that we want to diffuse that vanity by somehow making it "realer" and more down to earth. A lot of us want someone that feels so real we can reach out and almost touch them- by chatting with them on Instagram or wearing the same shade of red lipstick (even though nobody paid us to.)

Though many industries rely on elevating their own version of the Trusted Consumer to manipulate customers, I think the beauty industry is uniquely well-suited to crafting these influences. There is a particular intersection of desire, ego, and vulnerability when it comes to the business of looking and feeling beautiful. It just makes us fish in a barrel for this type of influence.

How I Balance

I find it critical to remind myself: Hey, this person has influences beyond their own "unbiased" thought process impacting the way they disseminate information and communicate it to me. They feel pressures, both spoken and unspoken, internal and external, to speak and act in a certain way, so I cannot "take their word for it." Their own conflicts of interest mean that I should always be reading and listening with a mindfulness to those conflicts...especially the ones which cannot and will not be disclosed or obviously.

It's important for me to practice holding these two ideas in my mind at once:

  • This BG has honest intentions, some type of talent for communication, and is attempting to present something helpful and entertaining. 
  • I cannot take this presentation at face value because it has more than the BG's conscious intentions influencing it.

I cannot rely on somebody simply because a company or community has made it appealing to do so. Because of the particular relatable/aspirational mix surrounding the most successful BGs, it's not as simple as the appearance or history of trustworthiness. When you are consuming a piece of media, there is always going to be a message, whether shouted or slyly whispered, that this person is worthy of emulation. Even if the BG doesn't ask or tell you to take action (buy this thing, subscribe to this, sign up for this service) there is always a message.

A BG's job is simply to do what makes them money and bring them joy. I don't really care to discriminate between the most fame-hungry shill in the BG world and the most open and humble ones. Their intentions and honor are not of primary importance. The position any influencer is put in makes it impossible for them to be entirely objective, so I can't start judging who I think is good or bad. My job as a consumer is to take care of my budget and my mental health, which means doing my own calculations and discounting process to account for the discrepancies between the obvious message and the hidden ones.

Further Reading

Propaganda (1928) by Edward Bernays- particularly Chapter V - Business and the Public


  1. Love this post and I agree, I'm not going to shun someone for hustling but you have to read/watch with a critical eye, and that goes for anything you encounter in the world. Although I usually avoid the channels that are sponsored post after sponsored post.

    1. These are the thoughts that swirl through my head when scrolling Instagram, reddit, and YT. Like you said, people need to get that money and as a capitalist pig, I am 100% into that from their perspective. From MY perspective I have to watch what I think/do because we're getting pumped with a lot of signals that are really beautifully and carefully crafted.

      I agree with you- those types of channels are "easy" to avoid and quite clunky to enjoy anyway. It always sucks when a BG who balanced the money and personal in a really delicate way tips into pure-shill, because then I just have to unsub and wish them luck in my head.

  2. Excellent post. I'm typically too lazy to comment on blogs, but I want you to know that I appreciate what you're doing here.

    1. Thank you Sonya! I'm glad we have 2 other places to interact besides reddit now :) I'm usually not a blog-commenter but now that I have my own blog I get such a thrill when people do comment.

  3. Shout out to Edward Bernays! My research is on Sigmund Freud's family and environs, and Edward Bernays was Freud's nephew (as well as his wife's nephew - there was a double sister/brother marriage thing going on).
    Also thank you for all your writing - I mostly lurk on MUR but I always appreciate your posts both there and here!

    1. Yes I always found the familial connection there interesting, in more ways than one ha.

      I'm so glad you enjoyed- hope to see you around MUR :)

  4. Having just weathered the Sephora Sale season, I needed this post. Thank you so much for discussing what can be an inflammatory issue for so many (I find that people tend to get defensive when marketing strategy comes up - in an "I'm too smart to fall for THAT" kind of way) in a thoughtful and precise manner.

    1. Hi Jennifer! I had a family emergency and was away from my blog the past few weeks but I saw your comment and I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I definitely have found that I can have knee-jerk defensive reactions when I'm being told how I'm getting manipulated, so I wrote the post with that type of reader in mind ;)