Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2004 / 19 Tishrei, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Skin cream and hard drive — Understanding product delivery | A "TARGETED delivery system" sounds like a weapons program that guides missiles to enemy positions. But we're not talking about a weapons program. We're talking about Estee Lauder's Future Perfect Anti-Wrinkle Radiance Creme.

This is a moisturizer that seems to have employed every branch of science. According to the magazine ads, the delivery system is "fueled by the study of genetics." It "cracks the code" of visible aging with its "Cell Vector technology."

In the war against aging, there's no messing around. Estee Lauder is the prime contractor, wrinkles are the objective, and failure is not an option.

Such is the language of modern beauty. Products pretend that their customers have an intimate knowledge of organic chemistry. Olay's Regenerist Serum offers "a high concentration of Amino-Peptide Complex." Grandma was happy with her cold cream, but the Neutrogena Pore Refining Cleanser thinks its younger customers want an "Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Formula with Gentle Microbeads."

Lancome's Aqua Fusion moisturizer "delivers 15 skin-essential elements," the ad says. The readers of Allure magazine may not know what those 15 elements are, but they want them in that jar. They may not understand what a "Super Traxion Brush" is exactly, but they like the idea that this patented wand will extend their lashes to "supernatural lengths," as Estee Lauder promises.

Many of these ads come with footnotes, lest anyone think that the researchers have skimped on the scientific method. The Estee Lauder wrinkle cream's claim of superiority offers the following footnote: "Clinical results compared to the identical ingredients formulated without Cell Vectors."

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While marketers sell cosmetics as creations of cutting-edge technology, they do the opposite for truly complex electronic products. Computers and programs are portrayed as friendly and familiar things. They may bear the names of fruits; there are Apple computers and BlackBerry personal digital assistants. In 1970, the father of an invention known as the "X-Y position indicator" had the good sense to call it a "mouse."

Where electronics are sold, colorful boxes show pictures of dogs and cartoon characters. They all promise plug-in-and-go simplicity — or, in the case of wireless products, five minutes of set-up. Later on, when the box's contents are spread all over the living room, consumers learn the truth: The new gear is not easy to use. And they find themselves digging into a manual full of numbers and letters attached to dots and dashes.

My new laser printer has the face of a nice mutt slapped across the front. The mixed breed is supposed to represent the simple soul of the printer. But the machine is as temperamental as an overbred Cairn terrier. And I've spent weekends going inside the program's gizzards to make the printer do my bidding.

In their quest to seem less intimidating, computer programs use homely things as icons. When something needs fixing, you look for the icon featuring a tool, like a hammer or wrench. A hammer can't fix anything that ever goes wrong in the computer (though at times I'm tempted to give it a whack). The battery in my laptop is a flat rectangular object. But the battery icon at the bottom of my screen pictures one of those clunky things you throw into a flashlight.

Pencils. Computer programs love the common pencil. There's a pencil on my IBM registration icon. There's a pencil on the Windows control-panel icon. It's designed to look as uncomplicated as a second-grade classroom in the 1960s. But when you click further, and get into things like the "IRQ holder for PCI steering," you're in a whole new ballgame.

It's easy to understand why the electronics want to appear simple and the beauty products want to seem complex. That's because the electronics are actually hard to use, and the cosmetics are not, no matter what's in them.

L'Oreal's makeup might contain a patented "Opti-blend complex," but it is applied with the same digitally operated delivery system — fingers — that Cleopatra used to smear colored grease on her face.

In the end, this beauty tech-talk simply reminds us that there's an important job to be done. We know that ordinary lipstick can't impart a captivating color for hours at a time. If science can help here — or make us think it can — well, some kind if mission has been accomplished.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.