Sunday, 9 October 2011

Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed The Way We Look (Mark Tungate)

--The blurb--
"Beauty is a multi-billion dollar global industry embracing makeup, skincare, hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, and even tattooing and piercing. Over the years it has used flattery, seduction, science and shame to persuade consumers that they have to invest if they want to look their best. In Branded Beauty, Mark Tungate delves into the history and evolution of the beauty business. From luxury boutiques in Paris to tattoo parlours in Brooklyn, he talks to the people who've made skin their trade."

--The review--
This book blog is only really starting to take off, with requests for me to review hard copies of books being few and far between, so I was naturally pleased to receive the request from Kogan Page to review a complimentary copy. As a long-time beauty blogger, I was also pleased to receive it, as I don't tend to be asked to review many books on my site (the last was an American coffee-table style publication, Be...A Woman, back in 2008). I was wary, though, of the "self-published" impression I had of the publisher, as I feel that this industry still has a lot of work to do to build its credibility (although as it turned out I was mistaken - Kogan Page is a small independent publishing house, not a company for those wishing to self-publish). Nonetheless, the author's credentials (work published in The Times, Stratégies, and The Independent, among others), filled me with enough confidence to pick up the book and begin reading. 

In spite of its initially specialist-seeming premises and topic, the style in which the book is written is extremely accessible without being patronising, meaning that marketing professionals and beauty aficionados alike should have no difficulty in enjoying it (although the summary of each chapter at its end - Beauty Tips - seems a little too dumbed-down in its style, even for amateurs). The stories from times past, anecdotes from industry insiders and peeks behind the scenes, alongside history and statistics, all contribute to making Branded Beauty an enjoyable and intriguing read. Illustrations would have been nice, but the reality is that the majority of the stories are sufficiently compelling on their own.

The writer's chronological approach makes it clear how the rise and rise of marketing has changed the way we not only look, but also look at ourselves. From this point of view, too, he is at risk of being led astray from his original purpose: from about halfway through the book, it is less and less about analysing how marketing has changed our appearance but more about exposing the controversies behind brands, such as the airbrushing scandals that have plagued certain very large brands, and the fact that not all brands marketing themselves as ethical are as squeaky clean as they may first appear. Nevertheless, even if Tungate does not perhaps 100% achieve his original goal, it makes interesting reading as we try to get past the suspiciously small samples of women on which products have been tested, and get back to the personal histories of what can now all too often seem like faceless global corporations.

But there was one deviation I could not tolerate. Part of Tungate's digression consists of repeatedly taking cheap swipes at the integrity of beauty bloggers. It is suggested and stated strongly throughout that beauty bloggers (along with beauty ediotrs) are traitors, propagandiists, straitjacketed, commercial, and untrustworthy. While I can see how Tungate may have reached this conclusion - I know that I for one have been frustrated at far too many magazines where features on products are as far from honest reviews as possible and are closer to being infomercials - it is far too sweeping to speak of beauty bloggers in the same breath as the magazines that do this. Equally, even though I cannot speak for other beauty bloggers, I wonder how many Tungate himself has actually spoken to: as well as trying to do this myself, I have met many other beauty bloggers who are concerned primarily with transparency, providing honest opinions, and allowing readers to make informed choices - not with glossily providing perfect impressions of a brand or product (regardless of how much the free products we are sent may happen to be worth). Such statements cast gross slurs on community journalists who are just trying to do a good job - and, more to the point, often do it voluntarily alongside more mundane day jobs. In addition, alongside the various assumptions delineated above, there are blatant errors, such as saying that Stri-Vectin SD is a Sephora own-brand product (it isn't).

As mentioned, the book is enthralling for its highly visual sense of history, its amusing and well-chosen anecdotes, and its extremely ambitious and up-to-date scope. Exploring the positives and negatives of the beauty industry, it is bound to be of interest to many. However, it fundamentally fails in its mission thanks to its deviations from its original topic, occasional factual errors, and near-libellous slurs against people like myself, whom the book's publishers so badly want good reviews from in approaching us. Should Tungate wish for this book to be published by a mainstream publisher, I fear that it would lamentably require significant revisions in order to be up to standard (a shame; I was hoping that this book would restore my faith in the credulity of independent/self-publishing houses). For Tungate's intriguing content, I could possibly forgive him and delve into his other books on this subject. For certain aspects of his professional conduct within these pages, though, I may need to think twice.

Other works by Mark Tungate
Luxury World: The Past, Present and Future of Luxury Brands (2009)
Branded Male: Marketing to Men (2008)
Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara (2008)
Adland: A Global History of Advertising (2007)
Media Monoliths: How Great Media Brands Thrive and Survive (2005)

cross-posted to Bianca's Beauty Blog

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A Secret Kept (Tatiana de Rosnay)

--The blurb--
"It all began with a simple seaside vacation, a brother and sister recapturing their childhood. Antoine thought he had the perfect surprise for his sister Mélanie's birthday: a weekend by the sea at Noirmoutier Island, where the pair spent many happy childhood summers playing on the beach. But the island's haunting beauty triggers more than happy memories; it reminds Mélanie of something unexpected and deeply disturbing about their last island summer. When, on the drive home to Paris, she finally summons the courage to reveal what she knows to Antoine, her emotions overcome her and she loses control of the car. Alone, waiting for news of Mélanie, Antoine reflects on his life: his wife has left him, his teenage children are strangers to him, his job bores him, and his father is an ageing tyrant who still poisons every aspect of his life. How did he end up here? And, more importantly, what was the secret that his sister wanted to tell him?"

--The review--
Having enjoyed de Rosnay's debut, Sarah's Key (which sells in France as Elle S'Appelait Sarah), I was pleased to see her second novel, A Secret Kept (sold under the title of Boomerang in France) available in "livre de poche" (books in France are absurdly expensive for about a year before being released in this format). I therefore gave up my €6,95 and settled down to read it. Initially, though, I was disappointed by there being too many sexual references for my liking (do I really want to read about penises during my commute? Really?) - which, moreover, seemed to be there for no real purpose other than to shock - and by the amount of name-dropping of contemporary products (iPods and Facebook both feature - is this really obligatory to sell books these days?). The protagonist's relationship with his sister also seemed strange, with a few too many comments on her physical appearance than it would seem normal for a big brother to make.

In addition, de Rosnay does not adopt the male voice with 100% success. We know it is a female writing, which perhaps clouds our perceptions, but even without knowing this, I'm not sure that anyone would believe completely in Antoine's persona. We get the feeling that de Rosnay is projecting very female concerns and depth of self-analysis onto a male narrator, when in reality, most men are probably not as brooding and are more straightforward. Eventually, the novel becomes less about Antoine's relationship with sister Melanie and more about his relationship with lover Angele, which would be fine were it not for the totally unrealistic manner of them getting together, and were it not for the fact that the development of this romantic relationship is apparently at the expense of the loose ends of Antoine and Melanie's story being tied up.

Do not, either, read this book for a realistic portrayal of life in Paris: it's all plush 16th-arrondissement apartments with concierges. I have not yet found a book set at grassroots level in Paris, rather than just telling Anglophone readers what they think they want to hear about the city (perhaps I should write one?!).

However, there are some redeeming features, even though the story doesn't have the same pace and flawlessness of Sarah's Key (there are episodes in A Secret Kept that don't seem to be there for any real reason). We believe in the characters of Melanie, Clarisse and Blanche, as well as those of Antoine's children and ex-wife (although here, too, we are led up the garden path with ex-wife Astrid's relationship with Serge, which is never fully explored or resolved). The author's strength is in plot, with the accident not being the whole story but a catalyst that takes us into a journey spiralling down into Antoine and Melanie's family history. We also have a brief dalliance with a possible murder mystery as we are forced to question whether the death of Clarisse is really a tragic accident, or something more, and with this as bait, combined with other family happenings and the more intriguing vicissitudes of Antoine's burgeoning relationships with his children, de Rosnay draws us in and keeps us there.

The title under which it is sold in France, though - Boomerang - seems far more appropriate, as the story is not so much about a secret being kept but the unveiling of it. The notion of one's family history coming back to you and being discovered therefore seems better expressed under the French title. In spite of the novel's numerous imperfections, it proved an enjoyable but easy read - even if, like many other reviewers, I could not resist the temptation to compare it to the perfection of Sarah's Key.

Other works by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah, 2007)
The House I Loved (Rose, 2012)