How Proactiv Became The Go-To Mega-Money Endorsement Deal For Celebrities

“I’m so proud of my darling @KendallJenner for being so brave and vulnerable,” wrote Kris Jenner on Instagram, a few hours before the Golden Globes broadcast. The post included a video of Kendall saying, “I can speak to so many people and just be like ‘I can help you, and it’s okay.’” Kris asked followers to watch her daughter’s Twitter for an upcoming announcement about her “raw” story. There were plenty of hashtags, like #BeTheChange and #MyDaughterInspiresMe. Immediate speculation began. As Jezebel pointed out, fans started wondering if she was going to talk about coming out (a longstanding rumor), a #MeToo moment, an eating disorder, or maybe opening up about anxiety and panic attacks. The tone was serious, suggesting a major revelation. Nope. In a commercial that aired during E!’s red-carpet coverage, it turned out to be a sponsorship deal with the acne treatment brand Proactiv. The internet’s reaction can best be summed up as “many GIFs of Viola Davis looking unimpressed being deployed simultaneously.” The Golden Globes timing is not surprising. In the commercial, and in stories that appeared in People and Vogue shortly after the announcement, Jenner reiterates her story about attending the previous year’s ceremony. She was feeling confident and beautiful, until she saw social media commenters shaming her for her acne. She then retweeted a supporter who praised her for walking the carpet with acne. According to Vogue, Proactiv sent her products afterward. Acne can be socially and psychologically debilitating, and despite a small but burgeoning movement championing “skin positivity,” it’s largely seen as a malady that most sufferers want to get rid of. Kendall is just the latest in a very long line of celebrities who have been part of the Proactiv acne marketing juggernaut (the “zitterati,” if you will) which includes a heritage of infomercials dating back to the mid-1990s and huge paychecks for its spokespeople like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. It’s an interesting and telling choice for the brand, which is going through a transitional period in its business model and whose parent company is considering selling it off. It’s also a pretty obvious signal about who brands consider a “celebrity” now. Proactiv and the golden age of the infomercialShamWow. The George Foreman grill. Bowflex. Tony Robbins. And, yes, Proactiv. What these all have in common is that they were historically sold via infomercial. But Proactiv is the only one that is arguably still a cultural and financial force. It’s one of the best-selling acne treatment brands of all time. Proactiv’s products are not unique or that different from many other acne products out there. Its treatment products contain benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur, the three most common active ingredients used in over-the-counter medications you can find at any drugstore. But when it launched in 1995, it was a bit different. It was regimen-based, meaning that instead of a spot treatment product that you seek out after you already have breakouts, it was meant to be a three-step system to prevent and treat, sold as a set and via a subscription model that renewed automatically. Its biggest differentiator from its competitors, though, is that it brilliantly used a strategy of infomercials and A-list celebrities to sell its products. Proactiv was founded in the early 1990s by two dermatologists, Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields. If those last names sound familiar, it’s because they are also the founders of Rodan + Fields, the popular (and sometimes infamous) billion-dollar multilevel marketing beauty brand likely lurking all over your Facebook feed. According to Forbes, the duo tried to pitch Proactiv to Neutrogena, which told them that infomercials would be a good way to market it. Neutrogena ultimately passed, and after some initial concern about infomercials being “cheesy,” the founders decided embrace them as a marketing plan. They licensed the product to Guthy-Renker, a company with considerable knowledge about infomercials. (Guthy-Renker was behind the Tony Robbins empire, and currently sells both Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty line and the often-sued Wen hair care line.) Forbes suggests Rodan and Fields were paid 15 percent royalties by Guthy-Renker, at least at one point. It’s not clear if they’re still involved with the company. As of publication time, Proactiv did not respond to requests for comment.Infomercials became popular in the mid-’80s after President Reagan deregulated some Federal Trade Commission advertising rules that had previously capped the allowable length of ads, opening up the now-familiar 30- to 60-minute “programs” hawking everything you can imagine. Steve Dworman, who wrote the book — well, the popular industry marketing reports — on the genre was a go-to consultant for the industry during its heyday in the 1990s. He says Victoria Jackson, a Hollywood makeup artist, was one of the first to successfully launch a beauty line via the medium, noting that her show had very high production values. (Please enjoy this clip from 1990 of her talking about “no-makeup makeup” with Love Story star Ali McGraw and Family Ties’ Meredith Baxter Birney.) “You put a show on the air that had Ali MacGraw on it and the next day people would be standing around the water cooler at work talking about it,” says Dworman. One problem that marketers had to contend with is that some products, like a juicer, are one-time purchases. Beauty products were an ideal way to keep people coming back, hence the subscription model. “In the mid-’90s, the response rates were not quite as high as they were in the early ‘90s, so people were looking for ways of optimizing their profits in the industry,” says Dworman. “Doing a continuity product, meaning a product which you want to replenish, usually through automatic reorders, was a really, really good idea.”This model did get some backlash from customers who found it hard to stop the automatic charges, but the company made hundreds of millions of dollars annually.Eventually, though, things changed. “Infomercials started really waning in the late ‘90s due to the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and satellite television,” Dworman says. “It’s fewer eyeballs and they’re spread out over a lot more sources.” Dworman says the response rate, meaning people who call or click to buy things, for infomercials is about 25 percent of what it used to be. He also says that the people watching TV these days are often over 50, which is not exactly the target demographic for acne treatments. Proactiv has long had kiosks in malls, but it started selling its products wholesale for the first time in 2016 at Ulta and, this month, at Sephora, along with having a traditional website. But while Proactiv had to pivot out of ...Read more

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