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Proactiv Speaks Out About Kendall Jenner Backlash

Proactiv is standing behind Jenner, but marketing experts say there's an authenticity lesson to be learned from the backlash.

Proactiv is standing behind Kendall Jenner.

Speaking out for the first time since the backlash from Jenner’s endorsement of the line erupted, the acne-treatment brand is defending its new face, saying that she does indeed use Proactiv, and that they are trying to drive a conversation around skin positivity.

“Acne has a terrible impact on your self-esteem; it has a direct link to increases in depression and is a topic that shouldn’t be shamed,” said Marc Kravets, general manager of Proactiv. “It should be an open conversation about getting your skin healthy. Some of that backlash we saw is exactly what we need to address this, and Kendall’s the perfect person to drive that relationship.”

The Kendall-Proactiv deal — teased first by Kris Jenner on Instagram, and later unveiled during the Golden Globes earlier in January — has been a controversial one. After the commercial aired, people seemed to deep-dive into Jenner’s skin-care routine online, surfacing widely reported information that Christie Kidd, a Beverly Hills-based physician assistant, was the one taking care of Jenner’s complexion. 

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The social-media-wielding public also took umbrage at Kris Jenner’s teaser post, in which she said she was proud of Kendall for sharing her “most raw story in order to make a positive impact for so many people and help foster a positive dialogue.”

Kravets said that the brand approved that post. “We do have to agree on anything that’s posted,” he said. “Everything has to be cleared so we do coordinate on all communications, together with the family.”

According to marketing experts, the teaser post was only part of the problem.

The larger issue at hand — which brands are increasingly faced with in the age of information — was authenticity.

“In the age of the Internet, there are a billion members of the truth squad, and it doesn’t take them long to put together an accurate picture,” said Erik Gordon, professor of marketing and business at the University of Michigan. “She’s particularly dangerous as an endorser because she seems to have no sense of how the public will react. Whether it’s the Pepsi ad or [something else], she seems to have no sense that the public wants to hear the truth. [They will] put up with a lot of bad conduct on the part of celebrities, but they won’t put up with being treated like fools.”

Gordon was referencing Jenner’s role in the 2017 Pepsi commercial that was widely accused of downplaying the Black Lives Matter Movement. There was also the 2018 interview with Love Magazine where Jenner touted being selective about which runway shows she walks in, which received backlash from less affluent members of the modeling community. Less dire, there was also the time in 2016 when Jenner told reporters she “won’t wear much makeup” for every day while promoting Estée Lauder’s now defunct Estée Edit makeup collection.

“It’s the world we’re living in right now,” said Cecilia Gates, chief executive officer of Gates Creative. “You can’t get around it if you’ve tweeted something, if you’ve said something, even Instagram stories…people can screen grab it and have it forever. Everything you’re doing is an archive and people aren’t that forgiving right now.”

According to Gates, while other celebrities, including Justin Bieber and Jessica Simpson, have worked with Proactiv, people were extra skeptical about the Kendall-Proactiv deal because Jenner’s following is so large. Plus, she signed on as a spokesperson during an era of radical transparency. Jenner has 102 million followers on Instagram — Simpson has 4.4 million. And when Simpson signed with Proactiv, Instagram wasn’t even around.

“These new consumers do their homework and they see someone like Kendall Jenner for Proactiv, and they’re like, ‘she hasn’t been talking about this and this doesn’t seem authentic,'” Gates said.

Jenner has since posted about Proactiv, on Jan. 17. Through Proactiv, Jenner declined to comment for this story.

Kravets declined to talk about the terms of Jenner’s contract, but did say the brand has a “content roadmap” in place. “We’ll definitely be doing more collaboration work with her,” he said. “She’ll be posting more on her experiences with Proactiv and opportunities she can offer her fans that come exclusively from Proactiv, as well as amplifying some of her content.”

While fans may not have been seeing the brand as part of Jenner’s usual posts, Kravets says that she is indeed a user, and has been using the ProactivMD line of products that contain a retinoid formulated to fight acne. “We went through an extensive process with her before the contract was signed where she used the product, commented on her results, collaborated with us and made sure that this was a product that worked for her,” Kravets said.

“There was a vetting process,” added Megan Macdonald, senior brand manager.

“What she told us is that she tried everything and she got some short-term results and then got the problem back,” Kravets continued. “Sometimes it came back less, sometimes it came back worse, but no matter what she tried, no matter who she talked to, she continued to struggle with the problem, and that’s evidenced by the events at the Globes last year,” he said.

Proactiv Stands Behind Kendall Jenner After Controversy
Proactiv said that Kendall Jenner has been using a line that contains retinoids.

In her Proactiv commercial, Jenner takes a trip down memory lane to the 2018 Golden Globes, which resulted in public criticism related to her acne. It also resulted in support, though, for her attendance at the event, even without a flawless complexion.

“We really want to be able to bring [acne’s impact] into the light and make this an open conversation about skin positivity and drive that narrative about it’s OK to have acne, it’s like any other condition you have to heal, you shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed, but you should be OK with clearing it up,” Kravets said.

For all the social media outcry surrounding the campaign, there is significant support, too: sales are up, according to Kravets.

“For the first full week of our relationship with Kendall, our new subscribers, one of our key metrics, were up 30 percent year-over-year for the first week of the campaign,” Kravets said. That includes Proactiv’s direct business — not sales at retail partners like Sephora and Ulta Beauty, though Kravets said the brand is also seeing a lift on Amazon.

Using a famous face to drive sales is a common practice in the beauty world — but it’s also something that is likely to draw critiques from consumers if it doesn’t feel genuine to them, the experts said.

“We know that celebrity and influencer endorsements have proven to work over the years,” Gates said. But in the age of social media, “if it doesn’t pass the sniff test [for consumers], they’re going to dig in.”