Saturday, December 11, 2010

I have a problem with Valerie Bertinelli

Maybe Valerie Bertinelli didn't like herself when she looked like this, but I did.

I liked Valerie Bertinelli when she was regular-looking for the same reason I liked watching "One Day at a Time" when I was growing up.

If you're not familiar with the show, it was about a woman struggling to raise her daughters alone just after a divorce. There was something about that show that felt very honest and real. I felt like I understood where each character was coming from. The time I spent watching it was akin to reading a really good book. It was very far from junk TV.

Anyway. I read Valerie Bertinelli's book Losing It, and again found her to be refreshingly real. I admired her honesty and her willingness to share her feelings of shame with the world. (I don't think I'll ever look at a jalapeno cream cheese popper the same way again - let's just say I've lost my taste and leave it there.)

Similarly, I read Mackenzie Phillip's book High on Arrival (she played Valerie's sister in the show) and thought she had a lot of guts to talk about not only her drug addiction but her incestuous relationship with her dad.

Both Valerie and Mackenzie struck me as people who were not motivated by money. Rather they seemed to want to help other people avoid the pain they had endured.

When Valerie endorsed Jenny Craig, I could see how that was a good thing, and I supported it, even though I'm generally suspicious of all these weight loss systems. Each one claims to have a special method to help you lose weight when really there's no magic behind the curtain. Take

1) Common sense advice about food
2) Intense social pressure to be thin
3) An incredibly busy schedule
4) Disposable income to pay for the meals
5) A hunger for emotional support

and voila...a customer is born.

Nevertheless, if it helps people, whatever. It's a free society. And so many people are suffering from obesity (caused by...guess what? More marketing of fast-food - "Supersize Me!") that I think it's actually a good thing if we have brands to counter the brands that have done us harm.

Here's her new TV commercial for Jenny Craig for the holidays, together with behind-the-scenes footage. Watching it, I can really get a sense of what a genuinely nice, caring person Valerie Bertinelli is. (Unless she's a total psychopath and is fooling everyone. Which could happen. But I doubt.)

However, I am starting to wonder if Valerie has let her newfound money and success go to her head. In marketing terms, I think she is losing her "brand permission." But not in the way marketers normally talk about this.

You see, normally when someone oversteps their "brand permission" they try to take their endorsement power somewhere the customer is not willing to let them go. For example, no matter how smart she is, you wouldn't see Kim Kardashian endorsing Harvard University. And you wouldn't see Emma Watson (of Harry Potter fame) endorsing baby food. The image of the brand is what determines its ability to move product.

The kind of mess-up I am talking about is more serious. Bertinelli, in my mind, is losing her credibility. Because she is misusing he position as a "trusted sister" - which she has leveraged so well in the Jenny Craig campaign - to promote an unnecessary, expensive, time-wasting beauty product: "Meaningful Beauty."

This stuff, which has the Cindy Crawford name attached to it, is marketed in a deeply offensive way. And by affiliating herself with it, Valerie trashes her own brand - because it only works if I, the consumer, identify with and trust her. I don't like this other product and I don't trust whoever is marketing it.

Here's why:

# 1 - The name is offensive

The term "meaningful beauty" is in my mind associated with doing something concrete in the world that has nothing to do with outward appearances. That's what MEANING is. It's INNER.

Meaningful beauty would be the late Mother Teresa, who gave her life as a nun in the Catholic Church and who spent 45 years of her life taking care of the poor and sick in India.

Or Elizabeth Edwards, a dedicated wife, mother and health care activist whose accomplishments in this life were so many and so honorable. Her love, caring and lack of ego were total, even in the face of loss and personal betrayal.

Or Ashley Judd, who is campaigning to end suffering and poverty while highlighting the ongoing struggle for women's rights: “A woman’s body is not the property of any church, state or other human being,” she told the Today Show.

Judd is also campaigning for women's empowerment and the end of sexual violence in the Congo:

The beauty that these women represent is their service to the world. Their selflessness. Their giving.

Beauty does not come from putting melon extracts on your skin.

# 2 - The infomercial perpetuates countless harmful stereotypes.

* The "untouchable" female beauty in the form of Cindy Crawford

* The "admiring younger sister who will never look that good but whom we trust for her common sense" in the form of Valerie

* "Dr. Sebagh," the supposed genius behind the cosmetics, who plays a very specific gender role to provide credibility to the product

* The "all natural super-ingredient" in the form of a supposed super-melon (the name of which we of course do not get)

* The remote-sounding location from which the ingredient is described, "Luberon, a secluded region in the south of France" and of course --

* The scientific-sounding language about "cutting-edge science" and "first generation antioxidants"

#3 - The product is a waste of the customer's time and money

There is no way to not get old. Sorry.

#4 - The marketing exploits women's insecurities

Women have quite enough insecurity as it is without Cindy Crawford selling them hope in a bottle. But the addition of Valerie Bertinelli really twists the knife. It is like saying, even a plain Jane like us can look like Cindy - even though we know that we can't.

I wish Valerie Bertinelli well. But I wish that she would stop promoting Meaningful Beauty. Maybe the product works, maybe it doesn't - I honestly couldn't see much difference in the before-and-after pictures.

The point however is that women, who are suffering in very concrete, survival-type ways all over the world, need real support from one another. Real sisterhood.

Someone who made her career as a sister, and whose brand rests on being a trusted kind of sister, should not exploit that sisterhood to make money.

The world doesn't need yet another fake friend.