Kendall Jenner, Proactiv, and the Next Wave of 'Empowerment' Spon


On Saturday, Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner posted a short video clip of her supermodel daughter Kendall Jenner, framed like any other interview cut-away in a Keeping Up with the Kardashians episode. In it, Kendall looks nervous, legs folded, eyes darting down and around the room, anywhere away from the camera lens.

“When I was 14 I couldn’t reach as many people as I can now,” she begins, “Now that I’m 22 and I have this whole thing behind me, I can speak to so many people and just be like, ‘I can help you,’ and ‘It’s okay.’ I experience it.” She smiles, now confident enough to look directly at the camera. “I’m very normal. I understand you. Like, I can connect with you. [I’m going] to try and help.” Kris captioned the tease, “I’m so proud of my darling @KendallJenner for being so brave and vulnerable. Seeing you share your most raw story in order to make a positive impact for so many people and help foster a positive dialogue is a testament to the incredible woman you’ve become.

“Make sure to watch Kendall’s Twitter on Sunday night,” the post continued, “to find out what I’m talking about and be prepared to be moved.” It concluded with a slew of dramatic hashtags: #bethechange #shareyourstory #changetheconversation #finallyasolution.

Naturally, fans began to theorize what “raw,” “brave and vulnerable” thing Kendall was going to reveal less than 24 hours later—after all, fans of the E! show that made her family famous have watched her grow up on screen, more or less, since KUWTK premiered in 2007 when she was just 12 years old. What more could be unearthed? They wondered if she was going to come out or, since she chose to make her announcement at the same time as the 2019 Golden Globe Awards—which last year looked like a funeral in solidarity with the Times Up movement—possibly a sexual misconduct story in line with Me Too. Some suggested she was coming forward with a message of an eating disorder or some other revelation about mental health struggles. (Kendall discusses her anxieties frequently on the show, attempting meditation and other new age practices to curb her panic attacks, etc., but has never given anything resembling a diagnosis on-air.)

What no one expected is what she revealed: an ad for Proactiv, the popular, often ineffective acne treatment.

Proactiv has long used personal confessionals to shill their product in commercials, a combination of unbelievable customer testimonials and celebrity ones, the latter of which includes alumni like Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne, Diddy, Jessica Simpson, Alicia Keys and Mandy Moore. These have declined in frequency in the last five years or so, coincidentally around the same time the company faced bad press, including from Jezebel, for its predatory continuity program and use of benzyol peroxide, a chemical that only works for a select few skin types (in others, it causes drying and premature aging). The last major celebrity endorsement that comes to mind is Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who described his battle with acne in an inescapable 2013 commercial.

It’s nearly impossible, now, in a time of skin-care as self-care, to imagine a celebrity of status and wealth using a $19.95 subscription skincare product with heavy, aggressive, damaging chemicals instead of whatever intensive, expensive, heavily moisturizing skin-care regimen actually works and is reserved for the rich—especially a model, whose career is built on looking good. Last year, Kendall’s “skincare guru” Christie Kidd (CK) told W Magazine all about her client’s routine, which consists of “CK Perfect Skin 4 Step regimen twice daily” and, according to her website, is so exclusive it is not yet available to the public, alongside “LED light treatments for acne”—Proactiv is no where to be found.

In addition to revealing a minor acne problem as though it were a life-altering trauma, all of that “raw” and “brave” language, (which, considering Kendall’s socioeconomic privilege and station in life, a few pimples might really be the greatest hardship of her adolescence), there’s something particularly cynical about the way Kendall, Kris and Proactiv chose to unveil her new gig as the new face of the problematic acne people: through teasers for spon con.

The video Kris posted on Saturday looks nearly identical to the weekly teasers E! releases to drum up excitement for each Sunday night episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It is a by-the-book reality TV practice—give them enough bait to bite, reel them in when it counts—meant to entice diehard and less-than-loyal viewers to tune in. It’s dishonest and disappointing to promise some new, groundbreaking, personal revelation only to deliver an advertisement for an undesirable product, but there are certainly no rules or laws against milking a hardship, hyperbolizing it to read like some large distressing event and then making money off of it through a sponsor. If Kendall’s premise is that she wants to help people by telling her personal truth, that “help” doesn’t come for free.

The expectation from the teaser was high, and naturally, audiences felt let down. But it wasn’t surprising that the Kardashian-Jenner clan is trying to monetize—and trivialize—a shitty personal experience. (And the bid is, theoretically, high—Proactiv announced their product has become available online at Sephora just last month. More ubiquity often means more money.) The Kardashian-Jenners are infamous for attempting to push the envelope where the envelope should not be pushed, notorious entrepreneurs lacking an internal monologue that might check them on the amorality and cheapness of a new way to sell themselves. As Kim Kardashian hits “Share” on another Instagram #ad for some sinister, ineffective weight loss tummy tea or Kendall Jenner stars in resistance-themed Pepsi ad, the family often sees no trouble with any of it, at least until the public decries their tone-deaf mistakes.

Inevitably, this is the next, not-yet-final frontier for spon con. In an era where advertisements are meant to look like articles, and the ethical line between editorial content and advertorial nonsense becomes increasingly thin, brands will surely continue to mine personal content in order to promote their product. Viral scammers do it all the time, but in the case of the Proactiv-Jenner teaser buildup, it’s shameless.

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