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How Proactiv became the go-to mega-money endorsement deal for celebrities

Kendall Jenner is the latest in a long line of celebs getting multimillion-dollar deals to talk about their acne.

Kendall Jenner at the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony.

“I’m so proud of my darling @KendallJenner for being so brave and vulnerable,” wrote Kris Jenner on Instagram, a few hours before the Golden Globes broadcast. The post included a video of Kendall saying, “I can speak to so many people and just be like ‘I can help you, and it’s okay.’” Kris asked followers to watch her daughter’s Twitter for an upcoming announcement about her “raw” story. There were plenty of hashtags, like #BeTheChange and #MyDaughterInspiresMe.

Immediate speculation began. As Jezebel pointed out, fans started wondering if she was going to talk about coming out (a longstanding rumor), a #MeToo moment, an eating disorder, or maybe opening up about anxiety and panic attacks. The tone was serious, suggesting a major revelation.

Nope. In a commercial that aired during E!’s red-carpet coverage, it turned out to be a sponsorship deal with the acne treatment brand Proactiv. The internet’s reaction can best be summed up as “many GIFs of Viola Davis looking unimpressed being deployed simultaneously.”

The Golden Globes timing is not surprising. In the commercial, and in stories that appeared in People and Vogue shortly after the announcement, Jenner reiterates her story about attending the previous year’s ceremony. She was feeling confident and beautiful, until she saw social media commenters shaming her for her acne. She then retweeted a supporter who praised her for walking the carpet with acne. According to Vogue, Proactiv sent her products afterward.

Acne can be socially and psychologically debilitating, and despite a small but burgeoning movement championing “skin positivity,” it’s largely seen as a malady that most sufferers want to get rid of. Kendall is just the latest in a very long line of celebrities who have been part of the Proactiv acne marketing juggernaut (the “zitterati,” if you will) which includes a heritage of infomercials dating back to the mid-1990s and huge paychecks for its spokespeople like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears.

It’s an interesting and telling choice for the brand, which is going through a transitional period in its business model and whose parent company is considering selling it off. It’s also a pretty obvious signal about who brands consider a “celebrity” now.

Proactiv and the golden age of the infomercial

ShamWow. The George Foreman grill. Bowflex. Tony Robbins. And, yes, Proactiv. What these all have in common is that they were historically sold via infomercial. But Proactiv is the only one that is arguably still a cultural and financial force. It’s one of the best-selling acne treatment brands of all time.

Proactiv’s products are not unique or that different from many other acne products out there. Its treatment products contain benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and sulfur, the three most common active ingredients used in over-the-counter medications you can find at any drugstore. But when it launched in 1995, it was a bit different. It was regimen-based, meaning that instead of a spot treatment product that you seek out after you already have breakouts, it was meant to be a three-step system to prevent and treat, sold as a set and via a subscription model that renewed automatically. Its biggest differentiator from its competitors, though, is that it brilliantly used a strategy of infomercials and A-list celebrities to sell its products.

Proactiv was founded in the early 1990s by two dermatologists, Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields. If those last names sound familiar, it’s because they are also the founders of Rodan + Fields, the popular (and sometimes infamous) billion-dollar multilevel marketing beauty brand likely lurking all over your Facebook feed.

According to Forbes, the duo tried to pitch Proactiv to Neutrogena, which told them that infomercials would be a good way to market it. Neutrogena ultimately passed, and after some initial concern about infomercials being “cheesy,” the founders decided embrace them as a marketing plan. They licensed the product to Guthy-Renker, a company with considerable knowledge about infomercials. (Guthy-Renker was behind the Tony Robbins empire, and currently sells both Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty line and the often-sued Wen hair care line.) Forbes suggests Rodan and Fields were paid 15 percent royalties by Guthy-Renker, at least at one point. It’s not clear if they’re still involved with the company. As of publication time, Proactiv did not respond to requests for comment.

Infomercials became popular in the mid-’80s after President Reagan deregulated some Federal Trade Commission advertising rules that had previously capped the allowable length of ads, opening up the now-familiar 30- to 60-minute “programs” hawking everything you can imagine.

Steve Dworman, who wrote the book — well, the popular industry marketing reports — on the genre was a go-to consultant for the industry during its heyday in the 1990s. He says Victoria Jackson, a Hollywood makeup artist, was one of the first to successfully launch a beauty line via the medium, noting that her show had very high production values. (Please enjoy this clip from 1990 of her talking about “no-makeup makeup” with Love Story star Ali McGraw and Family Ties’ Meredith Baxter Birney.)

“You put a show on the air that had Ali MacGraw on it and the next day people would be standing around the water cooler at work talking about it,” says Dworman.

One problem that marketers had to contend with is that some products, like a juicer, are one-time purchases. Beauty products were an ideal way to keep people coming back, hence the subscription model.

“In the mid-’90s, the response rates were not quite as high as they were in the early ‘90s, so people were looking for ways of optimizing their profits in the industry,” says Dworman. “Doing a continuity product, meaning a product which you want to replenish, usually through automatic reorders, was a really, really good idea.”

This model did get some backlash from customers who found it hard to stop the automatic charges, but the company made hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Eventually, though, things changed. “Infomercials started really waning in the late ‘90s due to the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and satellite television,” Dworman says. “It’s fewer eyeballs and they’re spread out over a lot more sources.”

Dworman says the response rate, meaning people who call or click to buy things, for infomercials is about 25 percent of what it used to be. He also says that the people watching TV these days are often over 50, which is not exactly the target demographic for acne treatments.

Proactiv has long had kiosks in malls, but it started selling its products wholesale for the first time in 2016 at Ulta and, this month, at Sephora, along with having a traditional website. But while Proactiv had to pivot out of infomercials as its sole method of sales, one cornerstone of its brand remains strong (though maybe waning): the celebrity endorsement.

So, so many celebrities have shilled Proactiv

In 1999, Judith Light, then known for her role in the sitcom Who’s the Boss and now known as the boss of all red carpets, was hired as the first celebrity to shill for Proactiv. Since then, Puff Daddy, Alicia Keys, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, Mandy Moore, Vanessa Williams, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Kaley Cuoco, Adam Levine, Julianne Hough, and many more have repped the brand. (There were later rumors that Puff Daddy sued the brand because it didn’t work, but there is no credible reporting that this actually happened.)

It always seemed so far-fetched that any of these people used the products, but that was on purpose. “In the early days, I think Guthy-Renker were going after celebrities that you would never think would be caught on a television commercial for an acne medication,” Dworman says. “They were trying to go for, ‘Oh, my god, if he really has this problem like I do and that’s what he’s using and they have access to the best doctors and everything, then I should be using it too.’”

A Proactiv ad from 2010 featuring Justin Bieber.

One of the Guthy-Renker founders has insisted that they did actually use the products, but of course, money was the draw for celebrity endorsers.

Dworman says that in the beginning, Proactiv celebrities were paid an appearance fee for shooting and a royalty on the sales. “Some of those celebrities ended up making a lot of money because the brand grew so large,” he says. According to AdAge, the royalty was 3 percent. After that, Proactiv reverted to an upfront pay structure instead of revenue sharing. Various reports through the years have suggested that the celebs received anywhere from $2 million to $5 million, with a founder telling Forbes in 2010 that about $15 million was earmarked for endorsements, compared to $200 million that the company spent for more traditional advertising. Dworman thinks that if a celebrity is going to be used on an ongoing basis, the range could be $5 million to $10 million.

Proactiv has always chosen a pattern of celebrities that reflect pop culture at a particular moment in time, as Billboard noted in 2010 when Bieber was named a face of the brand and YouTube musicians were ascendant. First it was sitcom stars, then reality stars like Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson, then pop starlets and musicians who were getting lots of eyeballs on YouTube and other video platforms.

There haven’t been any big names announced in the past two years, at least by the brand’s historical standards. Jenner is not an A-list celeb, but she is a huge influencer. With her family’s social media pedigree and 101 million Instagram followers, she fits into this pattern nicely. Social media influencers are the new celebs. Proactiv’s own brand Instagram account, at a modest 53,000 followers, could certainly use a Kardashian-level boost.

Will Kendall x Proactiv work?

Starting off her tenure as the acne-free face of Proactiv with a minor bait-and-switch controversy is not great, particularly with her history of that very notable Pepsi commercial debacle. In 2017, she was also the face of the short-lived millennial-focused Estée Lauder makeup line, the Estée Edit. So she doesn’t have a great track record. But Alixandra Barasch, an assistant professor of marketing at NYU Stern, thinks Jenner can get past it: “I think most consumers are pretty forgiving for most celebs who are apologetic. Maybe she’s a little bit tone-deaf and sometimes misses the mark a little bit, but [this is] not such a bad transgression.”

People have definitely questioned whether she actually uses the product. Jenner, a wealthy high-fashion model, has access to some of the best skin pros money can buy. It’s especially damning because her sister Kylie said in a 2015 New York Times interview, “We have a family dermatologist, Christie Kidd in Beverly Hills. My sister Kendall had really bad acne when she was younger, and she really cleared it up.” (Kidd is actually a physician assistant.) The anonymous beauty watchdog Instagram account Estée Laundry dug up some other examples of her crediting non-Proactiv sources for helping with acne.

Ultimately, Jenner will have to be convincing, according to Barasch, who studies sincerity in advertising. “The way she communicates, both the message content as well as her voice and non-verbal facial expression are going to be super important,” she says. She thinks that there definitely is an audience of young women who will relate to Jenner.

A bigger problem may be with the company itself. In 2016, Nestlé acquired a majority stake in Guthy-Renker as part of a plan to launch a “skin health unit,” which also includes brands like Cetaphil. With reports that that unit only made up about 3 percent of the company’s total sales, Nestlé is now looking to sell it off. Guthy-Renker could buy back the stake, or a third party could come into the picture, leaving Proactiv’s future uncertain.

Then there are the products. People are more interested in skin care than ever and analyze ingredients closely. Among aficionados, Proactiv’s products have a reputation for being harsh and drying. And at $80 for a 90-day supply of the three-step system and $20 for a single tube of benzoyl peroxide treatment cream, it’s not cheap. An equivalent product from Neutrogena is about $8.

Then there are newer services like Curology, a telemedicine startup offering customized prescription topical medications, which are more effective than over-the-counter meds. It’s about $20 a month. There’s also Differin, the prescription retinoid that was recently approved for over-the-counter use and is less than $15.

In the end, it might come down to how cynical everyone is. “Finding a great celebrity for your brand is a very, very difficult thing, and it’s become even more difficult because in our culture, it’s gotten to the point where everybody knows that everybody’s getting paid to say everything,” says Dworman.

That goes doubly so for the Kardashian-Jenner clan, who are well-known for shilling teatoxes and gummy hair vitamins with abandon. Anything any of them do is going to be judged on a scale of how mercenary it seems.

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