05/10/2012 05:12 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Beauty and Brains

The 40-something woman wearing a pink shirt stared out from the back page of last month's New York Times with an intelligent sort of look. Fine lines encircled her mouth and strands of curly hair framed her face. She appeared to be standing in some sort of laboratory and the ad identified her as the 2012 North American laureate of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science.

A far cry from the cosmetic giant's usual advertisements featuring wrinkleless, seductive and straight-haired goddesses, the company for once did not seem interested in beauty but in brains. Its partnership with the United Nations claims to support women who move science forward and grants fellowships to promising female researchers boosting their careers.

Did L'Oréal change its strategy? Not exactly.

As much as the company worries about women in science, it cares a great deal more about the positive reflection of the awards on its brands. Studies show that NGOs inspire high levels of public trust among consumers, and corporations are quick to capitalize on their reputations in return for a generous fee. Corporate philanthropy promotes partnerships of mutual benefit, offering companies a taste of respectability by association. (I learned this firsthand while working at Procter & Gamble's beauty department in Brussels.)

Attracting and retaining the right people also matter. The battle for executive talent often cannot be won with monetary rewards alone. Not surprisingly, employees want to be made to feel good about their jobs, however pointless, and a sense of purpose, however transparent, should help restrain the best from accepting a better offer elsewhere. Supporting women in science satisfies this need.

But there is yet another, subtler and darker reason L'Oréal is sponsoring the campaign. By championing women in science it hopes to bestow a scientific aura on its products, regardless of their actual medical merit. Branding cosmetics with pseudo-scientific terminology greatly appeals to consumers vulnerable to the myth of eternal youth. Clever neologisms such as "cosmeceuticals" and "microlifters" serve to propagate this illusion. A smart concoction of clinical packaging, medical-sounding affixes, and trademarked molecules hint at the real reason L'Oréal is spending millions of dollars on this campaign specifically, and not on, say, animal testing.

But why should we care about the instrumental motivations behind an otherwise seemingly harmless campaign? Shouldn't we focus on results? In other words: Do intentions matter?

I believe they do. The digital age has ushered in an era of increased transparency, informed choice, and freedom of information. Secrets are not what they used to be. Much like food producers print ever-more-detailed ingredient labels, newspapers publish story lists online, and diplomats now watch their words more carefully, companies should be honest about the ideas they are trying to get their customers buy into.

Companies survive by making a profit and rightfully seek to maximize their livelihoods. Philanthropic partnerships may well help them achieve this goal. But this should not be obfuscated under the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility charters. Companies trying to "engage in conversations" (instead of market to) customers via social media should respect the fundamental rules of dialogue. Integrity is imperative.

There is another reason why L'Oréal is guilty of hypocrisy. Its consistent misrepresentation of women in the media hardly squares with its promotion of female scientists. Teenage girls agonizing over their figure have less time to think about their future. It is hard to become what you cannot see. The documentaryMiss Representation recently explored how mainstream media contribute to women's under-representation in society by portraying them through a limited lens: role models include mean girls or beauty queens with hardly anything in between.

Beauty corporations like L'Oréal do not go unpunished in perpetuating these stereotypes. Advertising is one of the main reasons why seven million women suffer from eating disorders in the U.S., Ashley Judd was recently attacked by journalists because of her "puffy face" and an alarming 41 percent of women between 18 and 24 digitally alter their personal pictures online.

L'Oréal regularly funds research on the contributions made to society by cosmetics. In 2009, it published the results of a study on the use of cosmetics by adults suffering from anorexia in partnership with the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris; its title was "Cosmetics care in anorexia nervosa: a few grams of eye shadow to relieve self-loathing." Its wording suggests how the company positions itself as a crucial factor in the recovery of the women, not as an obstacle to it.

Much like the women in science campaign, making customers dependent on its products while acting to deserve a pat on the back is what beauty care companies really care about. Social impact is a nice, but ultimately secondary effect. It is time they take their customers more seriously and treat them like the interlocutors they tell them to be, or stop all pretending. If not, instant customer feedback through Twitter and Facebook will be unrelenting.