Strength: The New Beauty

Getschow fig1

MAC (Makeup-Art Cosmetics) created an advertisement for their spring 2013 “Strength Collection” that appeared in fashion magazines (figure 1). The ad contains a photograph of Jelena Abbou, a Serbian-American body builder, in a long, shiny, black dress, wearing MAC makeup.The collection is described as a combination of “elegant and wearable makeup” (Adcok and Hermon). Some of its main products include eye shadow pallets, which contain “blendable shades” with “pigmented formulas” (MAC, “Strength”) as well as dark lipstick colors. This advertisement has a variety of signs, such as Abbou’s face and muscles, the position of her body, the white box surrounding Abbou, and the text at the bottom. These signs work together to signify the idea that attractiveness creates confidence as well as inner strength. MAC thus challenges the stereotypical definition of femininity seen in many cosmetic advertisements today, which portray women as fragile, seductive, and traditionally beautiful.

Every aspect of Abbou’s photograph radiates strength and gives the viewer the impression that the woman in the picture is a physically strong person. Her biceps and shoulder muscles are bulging and are much larger than what society expects for a woman. The extent of Abbou’s muscular figure cannot be seen in the dress; her masculine physique is better seen in figure 2, Getschow fig2where she is advocating her bodybuilding. Her physique has made her a prominent woman in the world of bikini competitions and personal training (Adcock and Hermon). What we can see in figure 1 is that she is very muscular, and her body is not what is expected of a stereotypical model. Abbou’s facial expression is very severe and confident, giving off the feeling that this woman is strong willed. She is looking away from the viewer, suggesting that Abbou is in some way better than the viewer and does not need to look towards her. Although only Abbou’s profile is visible it is evident that her makeup makes her face look beautiful and doesn’t match her “manly” body features. This combination of muscles and makeup shows a different type of beauty; it shows attractiveness that comes from standing out from the crowd, a kind of inner beauty that radiates from people like Abbou. This advertisement is not advocating physical strength, but instead, Abbou ‘s muscles are the signifier and index for mental strength. This idea of strength of any kind is usually associated with men. Women, particularly in advertisements, are not portrayed as having strength of any kind, but instead as being sexual, feminine beings (Kim and Ward, 2012). MAC stands out from the other companies by tying strength to beauty.

Abbou’s ad differs from other MAC advertisements, which have used a variety of spokespeople and models including Pamela Getschow fig3Anderson, Boy George, RuPaul, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Nicki Minaj (Adcok and Hermon). In figure 3 featuring Rihanna, for example, the facial expression and muscular build of the model are very different. Rihanna is looking straight at the viewer and does not give off the impression that she is better than the viewer. Instead Rihanna is trying to seduce the viewer, which is indicated by biting her thumb (Kim and Ward, 2012). Rihanna is also closer to the camera, and her body is not shown. Her face is very slim, and the viewer can imagine that Rihanna has a very petite body. While Abbou’s advertisement was symbolizing strength, Rihanna’s advertisement is a symbol of sexiness and femininity (Janna Kim, 2012). Here the facial expression and slim face shape show that femininity goes hand in hand with sexiness, while in Abbou’s ad physical strength goes hand in hand with mental strength.

Getschow fig4The colors in the MAC advertisement of Abbou also contrast greatly with colors in other contemporary cosmetics advertisements. Figure 4 features a Revlon ad, which uses the actress-model Emma Stone. Its colors are very bright and symbolize femininity as opposed to the Abbou advertisement, which contains much more masculine colors that symbolize strength (MAC, “Strength”). The first such color in the Abbou advertisement is the grey background. The deep shade of the color allows the viewer to feel the strength that surrounds this photograph. Lighter colors that are more vibrant, such as the pinks and light hues in the Revlon advertisement, do not give off the same severity that this dark, neutral color does. The blackness of Abbou’s dress works to the same effect and signify power, which is associated with strength. The more feminine colors in Emma Stone’s advertisement are instead using stereotypical femininity to appeal to viewers (Kim and Ward, 2012).

The text in MAC’s Abbou advertisement is also not typical of most contemporary cosmetic advertisements. The white box that surrounds the image of Abbou and the word “Strength” are supposed to be associated with MAC makeup. This is clear from having the acronym “MAC” above the box, showing the viewer that MAC encompasses everything in the box beneath it. In the Revlon advertisement, the word “Revlon” became the main focus of the image, and the text even covers portions of the model’s face. That ad was not trying to make any bold statements; it simply offered a stereotypical image of beauty, and did not use any other text to explain its message. Revlon’s focus was simply on how makeup creates the beauty and seductiveness of the model. This differs from Abbou’s advertisement where the focus of the image is her muscular physique, the words “Strength” and the white box, all of which symbolize strength. There is also a small amount of text underneath the photograph, outside of the thin-lined white box. This text says, “Strike a powerful pose, stand out and redefine the notion of beauty in a colour collection too irresistible to ignore.” While this text is not contained within the box, it has the same symbols of strength as the components within. MAC is conveying the idea that their makeup collection stands out, just as their model does, and is “Too irresistible to ignore.”

The text at the bottom of the image is essential to the meaning of the advertisement. The idea of intentionally standing out is a concept that applies to confident people. A person who is weak or lacks strength would not be able to stand out. The word “redefine” can be looked at in a similar way; a person who lacks internal strength does not have the ability to redefine anything or, as this advertisement specifies, “the notion of beauty.” MAC essentially redefines beauty by focusing directly on physical strength while sending the message that beauty lies in confidence and mental strength, not in sexual appeal or traditional notions of femininity. The Revlon advertisement does not redefine beauty, or even attempt to; instead, it is very typical of many contemporary cosmetic advertisements (Kim and Ward, 2012). Revlon lets the viewer see its makeup and follows the trend of makeup expressing femininity and beauty, instead of trying to create a different type of beauty, as MAC does. While the bold makeup is very noticeable, the bold statement that MAC is making with this advertisement is even stronger.

In all three of the aforementioned advertisements, their creators used signs and signifiers to convey messages to viewers they were hoping to target. They did this through representing their products by schemas, organized patterns of thought or behavior that organize categories of information and the relationships among them in the consumer’s memory (Clark, Brock, and Stewart, 172). Ad designers are very aware that people are more persuaded by messages geared to their self-schemas and that consumers are always more likely to choose products that match their own identity and self-perception. (Olson and Sentis, 127). Most advertisers target these schemas and perceptions and assume that people who wear makeup would like to appear as a sexy, feminine woman, and not in any way masculine (Kim and Ward, 2012). The MAC advertisement redefines this; it uses the idea that attitudes are constructed and changed through assimilation of environmental information and influences into schemas (Olson and Sentis, 122). MAC isn’t targeting women who want to be masculine, but women who want to be different, or who see their own beauty as set apart from that of the typically feminine woman.

MAC is, in a sense, ahead of the game. It is trying to change the idea that the dominant social construction of femininity is the only way to sell cosmetics, and to prove that strength can also be a selling point in cosmetic advertisements. Timing of advertisements is extremely important, and if the time period that the MAC ad had run had been different, it would have had a different effect on the viewer. In 2013 the creators of the ad knew that many women in the US  desire physical fitness but would not admire Abbou’s hyper-muscular, masculine physique; instead they would admire mental strength and associate the beauty of her face, as well as her bulging muscles, with a strength from within. They were well aware that contemporary women generally look to other women in order to find a portrayal of attractiveness that they wish to emulate (Kim and Ward, 2012). The MAC advertisers were looking for a way to redefine the way women see themselves and, in turn, the way cosmetic advertising targets female viewers by making strength attractive.

–Dana Getschow

Works cited

Clark, Eddie M., Timothy C. Brock, and David W. Stewart. Attention, Attitude and Affect in Response to Advertising. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994.

Olson, Jerry C., and Keith Sentis, eds. Advertising and Consumer Psychology. New York: Praeger, 1986.

Adcok, Lucy, and Angelicia Hermon. “Meet MAC’s New Strength Collection! Body Builder Jelena Abbou Gives Us Her Tips.” Grazia Daily, February 13, 2013.

MAC. “Strength.” new/ 10485/New-Collection/Strength/index.tmpl (accessed April 2, 2014).

Kim, Janna L., and L. Monique Ward. “Striving for Pleasure Without Fear: Short-Term Effects of Reading a Women’s Magazine on Women’s Sexual Attitudes.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 36, no. 3 (September 2012): 326-336.


Figure 1. MAC advertisement featuring Jelena Abbou, 2013.

Figure 2. Photograph of Jelena Abbou,, ca. 2013.

Figure 3. MAC advertisement featuring Rihanna, (accessed April 25, 2014).

Figure 4. Revlon advertisement featuring Emma Stone, (accessed April 25, 2014).


  1. Preston- The color is definitely a really important part of the advertisement. I really liked the use of the darker colors throughout the advertisement because it was so atypical of contemporary cosmetics advertisements and drew my eye. I’m happy that I was able to convey how different this advertisement is from other cosmetic advertisements.

    I was wondering exactly what revision you would suggest to the sentence that you mentioned? Do you think that the blackness of the dress works in a different way than to signify a sense of masculinity and power?

    When I looked at the advertisement, the dark colors made me think of power and masculinity as opposed to femininity. I’d be really interested to hear your take on the use of the colors throughout this advertisement!

  2. Lina- I agree that an advertisement like this targets many more people, as well as many different types of people, than a typical cosmetic advertisement does. I think its really interesting that MAC, by creating an advertisement like this, is able to widen their target audience. I think in most cases, when there is a dramatic change in anything, especially in a case like this where beauty is redefined, it usually thins an audience out as opposed to drawing more types of viewers in.

    I agree that this advertisement is very similar to your “Find Your Greatness” Nike campaign. I hadn’t noticed that before! It’s really interesting to notice that while your advertisement received some criticism for defying stereotypes, the MAC advertisement did not have the same type of critique. It is also interesting to note that going against stereotypes draws in a larger audience, whether it seems to be going against them in a positive, or somewhat questionable manner. Both of our advertisements are definitely not typical advertisements, and both received attention for that!

  3. When I first looked at the ad, I noticed its use of color. While I think mentioning the relations between colors of a model’s facial products and the colors found in other areas of their respective advertisements would be constructive to this article, I especially enjoyed the article’s analysis of the image’s color. Aside from suggesting a slight revision to the sentence “The blackness of Abbou’s dress works to the same effect and signify power…”, I can hardly fault this article for much. It analyses MAC’s cosmetic advertisement in such a way that a reader entirely unfamiliar with cosmetics advertising can understand MAC’s significant departure from conventions of feminine beauty and the implications it entails.

  4. I personally enjoyed this article because it shows the contrasting aspects of the MAC advertisement with their previous ads. It shows that femininity does not always have to be the glamorous made up women, but instead, can be muscular, confident women. This advertisement would speak to a lot more people than a typical makeup ad because it is more universal and encompassing of various body types. It is similar to my “Find Your Greatness” Nike campaign ad that also deals with rejecting the stereotypes of body type as a marker of personal success, or in this case, of beauty. I think as a result, this ad, will gain a wider audience and have greater sales for the MAC cosmetics.

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