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Lipstick effect: Why women buy more cosmetics when times are tough

Published: Monday, July 2 2012 10:19 a.m. MDT

Estee Lauder lipsticks from their Signature Lipstick series circa 2007.

AP Photo/Estee Lauder

When someone with the screen name "Jluttichau" added an entry about the "Lipstick effect" economic theory to Wikipedia.org on Dec. 5, 2008, the hypothesis was all about luxury and not evolution and reproduction.

The New York Times had an article earlier that year titled "Hard Times, but Your Lips Look Great" that explained the origin of the theory this way: "After the terrorist attacks of 2001 deflated the economy, (Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder Cos.) noticed that his company was selling more lipstick than usual. He hypothesized that lipstick purchases are a way to gauge the economy. When it's shaky, he said, sales increase as women boost their mood with inexpensive lipstick purchases instead of $500 slingbacks."

In other words, people want to buy luxury items, but in hard times they feel restrained from big purchases, so instead of a $300 shirt, they buy a $40 lipstick.

A new study in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," however, puts a different gloss on the lipstick effect. Women are not buying lipstick for, as the New York Times described it, "an inexpensive treat meant to substitute for a bigger-ticket item," nor are they just "morale boosters."

Instead, according to Sarah Hill's overview of her study in Scientific American, the lipstick effect comes from evolution and is "deeply rooted in women's mating psychology."

"While economic recessions are a recent development in human history," Hill writes, "fluctuations in prosperity and resource availability are not. Human ancestors regularly went through cycles of abundance and famine, each of which favors different reproductive strategies."

When times were good, women could relax and take their pick of mates. When they were bad, however, they had to get a mate quick or else they might die before they could reproduce.

So Hill conducted tests to see if recessions in the modern world had the same effect. "Our findings consistently supported the lipstick effect, as college-age women, when primed with news of economic instability, reported an increased desire to buy attractiveness-enhancing goods, along with a decreased desire to purchase goods that do not enhance one's physical appearance," she wrote. "Our experiments also found that this increased desire for beauty products, clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources."

Hill said that although journalists (and Wikipedia) thought the effect was because women were only wanting to spend money on cheaper luxuries, the study showed "the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive."

And the lipstick effect worked on both the rich and poor. "This suggests that an uncertain economic climate leads women to heighten mate attraction effort irrespective of their own resource need," Hill wrote.

The history of the effect goes back a long time, according to The Guardian. "The 'lipstick effect' can be traced back to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the four years from 1929 to 1933, industrial production in the U.S. halved, but sales of cosmetics rose," it said.

But The Economist was skeptical and tested the theory in 2009 with statistical analysis. "Not everyone is convinced. Reliable historical figures on lipstick sales are hard to find, and most lipstick believers can only point to isolated, anecdotal examples as evidence of the larger phenomenon. Data collected by Kline & Company, a market-research group, show that lipstick sales sometimes increase during times of economic distress, but have also been known to grow during periods of prosperity (see chart). In other words, there is no clear correlation."

What is worse, the Huffington Post said the lipstick effect, if really about attracting a mate, is somewhat hopeless. "And men don't care solely about eye shadow or bronzer when evaluating physical appearance: one of many factors when choosing a mate. Men tend to pay attention to a woman's waist-to-hip ratio, facial symmetry and physical similarity to themselves — and there's not much that makeup can do to change any of those features."

Meanwhile, Jluttichau's Wikipedia entry on the lipstick effect theory is in danger of being deleted for not meeting "general notability guidelines." It is unknown whether Jluttichau feels an urge to purchase lipstick to deal with such hard times.

EMAIL: mdegroote@desnews.com TWITTER: @degroote FACEBOOK: facebook.com/madegroote

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