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The Human Brand: Evolution, Neuromarketing and Cosmetics

January 26, 2015 0 Comments

Copyright Daniel B. Yarosh, Ph.D. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s note: I had the pleasure of spending some time with Dan Yarosh when we were both speakers at a conference in Lima, Peru last November. Dan’s presentation was a big hit, and I recently discovered he had posted a version of it on his website at I asked if I could re-post it here and he generously agreed. Dan’s research on the biological basis of beauty enhancement is fascinating and a reminder to anyone interested in neuromarketing that, in Dan’s words, “You can’t do cutting-edge marketing anymore without understanding biology.”

I want to introduce to you the Oldest Brand: The Human Brand.

dan-human-brandIt’s something you probably have not thought a lot about, but on reflection you will realize that each person’s appearance and style are her Brand. That personal brand conveys a lot of information to another person, who uses it to judge status and sex appeal.

For women especially, the Brand is about beauty, which is big business. The worldwide beauty business valued at $265 billion by 2017 growing at an annual rate of 3.4%. But the beauty business has some peculiarities: it’s consumers are women all around the world, but not men. Most beauty products are for the eyes, lips and evening skin tone, but not for the nose or ears. Why is that?

The answers illustrate the hard-wired nature of the Human Brand.

One common explanation for women’s obsession with beauty is that the social and fashion media call her attention, and that women would not ordinarily purchase makeup and cosmetics except for this social pressure. The theory goes that women are taught from birth by social media, the women’s magazines, icons of glamour and even their own mothers, that buying cosmetics is a woman’s duty and requirement for a happy life.

We have, in fact, within our social memory, a test of this hypothesis. The case study is the country of Bulgaria. Bulgaria became a communist country after World War II in 1945. The autocratic regime imposed a centrally planned economy. Government planners, who were almost all men, made decisions concerning the availability of consumer goods, including cosmetics. The choice of beauty products for most categories was limited to 2, supplied by the 2 main cosmetic companies. They were of terrible quality. Black and grey markets in smuggled or diverted goods were heavily penalized.

From 1945-1990, the communist controlled media told the people that their basic needs were provided for. They were told that a woman’s concern with personal beauty and fashion was a remnant of her bourgeois consciousness that must be expunged. This “vanity of cosmetics” message pervaded government publicity and especially the social media controlled by the government. At the same time women were encouraged by the same social media to join the workforce and study traditionally male trades. By 1989 it was the only politically correct lesson that most women had heard in their lifetimes.

?Then, in 1990, the Bulgarian government collapsed, along with the rest of Communism. Immediately, the demand for cosmetics and perfumes exploded, significantly exceeding the growth of income of the people. Between 1997 and 2002, the growth in sales of these cosmetics exceeded the growth in household appliances, radios, TVs and clothing. The number of perfumeries alone increased 65%.

If the social media theory was correct, it is hard to explain why 45 years of Bulgarian social media could not dissuade the use of cosmetics among a generation of Bulgarian women. A similar pattern appeared in China. Following the liberalization of social laws in the 1990s, China experienced an explosion of aesthetic plastic surgery, despite absence of any widespread media campaign.

What the histories of Bulgaria and China teach us is that social media can follow and shape, but cannot create, fundamental human social drives. Despite a generation of dominant media messaging that cosmetics were undesirable, Bulgarian and Chinese women immediately returned to the pursuit of beauty.

The other explanation for the drive for beauty is rooted in evolutionary biology.

This theory says that cosmetics are evolutionarily adaptive for women; that is, they contribute to solving a biological problem for a woman that improves her potential for reproductive success. The theory says beauty is therefore hard-wired in her genes. The beauty drive also arose very early in human evolution, and spread with women as humans conquered the globe, which is why it is universal.

What does “reproductive success” mean? Humanity as a species has developed a survival and reproductive strategy. Our intelligence and omnivorous eating habits allow us to survive and multiply in nearly every ecology in the world. From about 10,000 people at our low point in human history there are now more than 7 billion of us worldwide – that is what I call success.

Each sex, male and female, also has a strategy for reproductive success – meaning producing the proportionately most number of children and grandchildren in the succeeding generations. That strategy includes advertising to potential mates, and competing members of the same sex, that you are valuable. We can call the display of these traits “attractiveness” or “sex appeal “.

It is quite remarkable that people of all cultures universally agree on what is attractive. A meta-analysis covering 919 studies and over 15,000 observers found that people agree, both within cultures and across cultures, about who is attractive and who is not. Men and women agree, and people of all ages agree, on who is attractive. This strongly suggests that judgments of physical attractiveness are hard-wired in human genes.

It is simply not possible that these preferences are taught to people by culture. Six-month old infants gaze longer at faces that adults judge as attractive and spend less time looking at faces that were judged as not attractive. This cannot be explained by the social media theory of beauty.

People have different potentials for reproductive success. This is just the natural variation in a population. They display this variation in their body shapes and facial appearances. We call the variants with favorable features attractive. During human history, we have evolved brain functions to detect and value attractiveness, because these are signals of the most important feature to evolution, reproductive fitness. Those who can detect attractiveness for partnering will be at an evolutionary competitive advantage for leaving his or her genes to the next generation.

Remember, our brains can sometimes prefer the signals of fitness, not the actual fitness. An example of this may be hair on the top of the head. Ancient people noticed that this hair is attractive as a sign of fitness and those with more hair had advantages in life. After many generations, people tended to grow more hair on their head than anywhere else on their bodies. It probably doesn’t contribute much biological function, but it is globally a preferred signal and hair product brands do very well.

So what are the features that make a person attractive?

The sex hormones, testosterone in men and estrogen in women, largely drive the body and facial features people look for. The onset of puberty ramps up hormone levels and reshapes the male and female bodies. Men increase their shoulder to waist ratios, their beards grow and their jaw lines become more pronounced. For women, breasts develop, the hips to waist ratios increase, and their jaw lines and facial features become softer.

Women are so attuned to facial features of men that simply by looking at their photographs they can correctly rank order a group of men based on the testosterone level in their saliva. Interestingly, while a woman tends to prefer a man with high testosterone for an affair, she prefers a little less testosterone for a long-term mate, and her parents tend to prefer even a little less testosterone. Exaggerating the masculinity of men’s pictures can actually make them less attractive.

But people cannot get enough of the effects of estrogen. In a series of studies by David Parrett, panels of men and women were shown women’s faces that were morphed to exaggerate feminized features. 95% of men and women decided that feminization of women’s faces made them more attractive. The same result was found for faces of European, African and Asian descent. Another of Parrett’s studies looked at women with varying estrogen levels during their menstrual cycle. Women with higher estrogen levels had higher ratings of femininity, attractiveness and health. Interestingly, when the women put on make-up, the correlation between estrogen and attractiveness disappeared. This shows that make-up literally “makes up” for lower estrogen levels.

This is the answer to the first question – why are cosmetics only for women? Because cosmetics accentuate estrogen driven female characteristics. One of my favorite reports was a recent study of tipping behavior in a French restaurant. Male patrons gave tips more often to waitresses who wore makeup, and when they did tip, they gave them a larger amount of money than to waitresses without makeup. There was no difference for female patrons, even though both male and female patrons thought that the waitresses were more attractive when they wore makeup.

What are the details of the Human Brand and how does our brain recognize them?

First, the brain recognizes bilateral symmetry and body proportions.

The most elemental value in The Human Brand is bilateral symmetry; meaning the left and right side of the body are mirror images of each other. Bilateral symmetry is a sign of the absence of congenital or developmental defect, malnutrition or parasitic infection, common maladies in subsistence living. People with poor health as children tend to look unusual, or away from the norm, by the time they are 17 years old. Although minor variations are often of no functional consequence, they do have dramatic impact on the perception of beauty. Such judgments of the Human Brand are culturally universal.

Men and women differ in body shape under the influence of the sex hormones. The preferred ratio of waist to hips for men is 0.9. For women, who have wider hips, the preferred waist to hip ratio is 0.7. Once again this ratio for women is universal among all cultures that have been studied, suggesting that this preference is genetically hard-wired in our brains.

This idea is supported by one of the more interesting studies conducted by functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which images the brain while at work. This was a study of women who underwent plastic surgery on their bodies. Men were shown pictures of the women naked before surgery, and not surprisingly, distinct parts of their brains were activated. They were then shown pictures of the same women after cosmetic surgery had improve their waist to hip ratio to be closer to the ideal of 0.7. By comparing the brain reactions to the before and after pictures, the study reported that approaching the ideal ratio specifically activated the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. These two brain regions have been associated with judging value in choosing between alternatives.

We pay special attention to people’s faces.

We have a unique and well-developed area of the brain devoted just to facial recognition, called the fusiform face area. As social creatures, it is essential that we read other peoples intentions and emotions in their faces and adjust our behavior accordingly. We also use the face to determine attractiveness.

In another fMRI study, men were shown faces of beautiful women while their brains were scanned. Compared to average faces, the attractive faces specifically activated the nucleus accumbens in the caudate region of the brain. This region is a reward center of the brain. So we are built to reward ourselves with a little dose of dopamine when we make the right evolutionary choice!

The eyes are a feature of the face closely related to beauty. The brain uses a special region, the superior temporal sulcus, for the job of following eye movements in others and determining the direction of their view. This region develops early, and neonates learn within months to follow their mothers’ gaze. Eye recognition is wired directly into the most fundamental emotional processing unit in the brain – the amygdala.

So in summary, the brain is built to monitor the symmetry and shape of the body, and features of the face, especially the eyes. In this way the brain is tuned to the Human Brand.

There is one more driver of the Human Brand for your brain – and that is Youth.

It’s common to think that this is a recent trend. In fact it is not. People are exquisitely sensitive to the age of others and are excellent judges of each other’s age. Our brain uses various facial cues to judge age even if we cannot call it into consciousness and express it.

The reason youth is important is rooted in evolutionary biology. For women, youth is a strong predictor of estrogen levels in all human cultures studied. The appeal of youth is not just a trendy preference, but it was likely selected in our ancestors thousands of years ago.

Cosmetics are used to counter the loss of estrogen effects with aging. The prevalence of makeup use among Western women rises from 74% in 18-24 year old bracket, where estrogen is at its highest, to 81% in 35-44 age group, where it has already begun to decline.

These evolutionary pressures to accurately judge age have focused our attention on estrogen driven traits that most readily reveal a woman’s age. In a comprehensive study of individual human facial features, the analysis concluded that the most important factors in judging age are the size of the eyes and the lips, and the evenness of skin tone, regardless of what that tone might be.

In every ethnic group around the world, the size of women’s eyes decrease with age. They get smaller, top to bottom, in every culture. The same thing is true with lip size.

Eye makeup, which is used to increase the appearance of the size of eyes, has the greatest effect on attractiveness as judged by both men and women. Observers look at the eyes of women with eye makeup 40% longer than women without it, and if the rest of the face is made up, the attention to the eyes increased 80%.

Lipstick, which increases the appearance of the size and accentuates the shape of the lip, increases the time people spend looking at the lips by 26%.

What about evenness of skin tone? When images of just a swatch of skin from British girls and women were shown to observers, they were able to correctly estimate biological age. Their evaluation showed a strong correlation between judging someone as older and unevenness of hemoglobin and melanin distribution in the skin sample. Homogeneity was also correlated with increased attractiveness and appearance of healthiness. For people shown pictures of both made-up and no makeup faces, the number of eye fixations and dwell time were positively correlated with skin color homogeneity.

We focus on the homogeneity of skin color because it is a marker of age. All people, regardless of ethnicity, get darker with age and their skin tone becomes uneven. The particular color changes that occur, however, differ among ethnicities. For example, young African women have a strong yellow tone that declines with age, while young Chinese women have less yellow that increases with age. Therefore, a yellow skin tone means beauty and youth in Africa but aging and unattractiveness in China.

More importantly, as people get darker with age, the color contrast between the hair, eyes and facial skin is reduced. Once again, cosmetics are used to counter this sign of aging by enhancing color contrast.

Why is there no makeup for the nose or for the ears? The simple reason is that the length of both the ears and nose continue to increase with age. These are the last features a woman would want to highlight, because increased attention would indicate an older age. Ergo, no nose or ear cosmetics.

This review of the Human Brand also provides insights into Neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is the convergence of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology and genetics with economics and marketing. The brain comes from somewhere, and you have to understand human evolution and genetics to understand the brain.

You can’t do cutting-edge marketing anymore without understanding biology.

The desire for Beauty is hard-wired in our genes, and the genes then direct construction of our brains. It is global because all humans share a common descent. Social media does not create beauty preferences, but media follows the drives of evolutionary biology.

A great example of this is The Lipstick Effect.

Classical economists would consider luxury cosmetics as elastic goods whose demand would contract in difficult economic times of recession, just like the demand for luxury homes and boats. But Leonard Lauder, the Merchant Prince of luxury cosmetics, first formulated the concept of the Lipstick Effect. He observed that sales of lipsticks increase during economic downturns, as women choose small pleasures to compensate for losses, and increase their appearance advantage in a more competitive environment. A thorough academic study of recessions over the past 50 years confirmed his theory. Women tend to increase their purchase of products that enhance their appearance while decreasing their purchase of non-appearance-enhancing products.

Neuromarketing insights can help guide business through difficult cycles, and create new categories of goods and services that are aligned with people’s hard-wired desires.

About the Author:

Daniel Yarosh is a technology advisor and expert on the convergence of science and business. His attention is focused now on neuromarketing, evolutionary biology, and luxury goods. He works within the beauty industry as Chief Technology Advisor to R&D, Estee Lauder Companies. He advises the company on long term biotechnology strategy and scouts for the latest technology trends that impact the beauty and skincare industry. Outside the beauty industry he advises on trends in the convergence of science & technology with luxury, aesthetic & personalized medicine and human aspirations. He has special expertise in dermatology. In 2014 he joined the Board of Directors, Aceto Corp. (Nasdaq: ACET) a pharma company.

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