It’s Saturday night, you’re somewhere in the city, and the queue for the toilets is long. Like, 15 people long. Some are staring at their phone, some are glancing out at the dance floor wistfully, like kids in detention watching the rest of the school have fun on the playground. The woman in front of you is wearing the most incredible red lipstick you’ve ever seen, a vibrant red that skews orange when the strobe light hits it. Not too matte, not too shiny. Is she the online beauty reviewer Dragon Girl? You don’t know, but you have to ask.
So you do. What unfolds is natural: the two of you share a tenuous but palpable bond, right there, in the queue for the toilets, over that red lipstick. You were looking for something, somebody else discovered it, and you found that person. Chatting about lipstick turns into chatting about life. Maybe you become friends, or maybe you never see each other again. But you got the shade name. And the horizon of your world spreads a bit broader.
Until you find out Dragon Girl wasn’t a girl at all, but an influencer planted there to tug on that thread of beauty curiosity. Or a robot programmed to spew praise at anybody it registers as a human woman aged between 28 and 40. Or a lipstick brand masquerading as a beauty reviewer on a large retailer’s website. “The perfect red-orange,” she says. “Just the right amount of matte-to-shine ratio!”
To read online beauty reviews is to negotiate such potential minefields. The question isn’t whether reviews can be faked. We know they can because they have been. Last year, a Reddit user claiming to have worked at skincare brand Sunday Riley posted what appeared to be an email with the subject line ‘Homework Time – Sephora.com Reviews’. It walked employees through a step-by-step process on how to hide their IP address (an easy manoeuvre to make it appear that you’re using your computer in, say, Japan, when in fact you’re at home in Pretoria), leave a minimum of three reviews for one of the brand’s newest products, and, perhaps, mention specific qualities of the product that had been maligned in other legitimate reviews. Within 48 hours, Sunday Riley confirmed the veracity of the email, saying it was indeed sent by a former employee and they would be ‘making an e¡ ort to bring more transparency’ to their customers.
Interviews with beauty entrepreneurs, site managers, consumer psychologists, as well as influencer agencies tied to the product-review industrial complex, confirm the fears of beauty shoppers everywhere: the word-of-mouth recommendations we rely on when filling our vanities aren’t always trustworthy. The behaviour isn’t surprising considering the stakes. The global cosmetics industry is expected to be worth about R12.1 trillion by 2023. And recent data shows that 77% of online shoppers read product reviews for more than half the products they purchase. Besides having had a positive experience with the product themselves, seeing a large number of positive reviews makes digital shoppers trust a brand. A lot of money is on the line. And brands aren’t willing to leave it all to chance.
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