ABOUT THE PROJECT
In recent years there has been an influx of health and wellness brands tailoring to young consumers by adhering to millennial and gen Z trends and values. More than ever before, emerging brands are incorporating the values of their target consumer into their business models. For brands like Outdoor Voices, Seed, Moon Juice, and Care Of, this means promoting the core values of a larger wellness trend (self care, individuality, diversity, sustainability, and equality) and fostering a lifestyle. Social media can essentially bring a brand to life, giving them a platform and personality, allowing commercial practices to be more intimate. Oftentimes, when you strip the advertising of clean aesthetics and visually appealing images, it can be hard to figure out what is being sold, how it works, and if these wellness products are based on research or if they're merely gimmicks. It is worth considering if "woman-centric" lifestyle brand values align the actual effect they have on women.
This project intends to understand how women's relationships with their health and wellness have been impacted by the ways modern (“new age”/”new wave”) health and wellness industries market themselves?
Our research topic, and the lens we use to observe it, relies on the STS foundations that appeared in John Law’s “STS as a Method ''. Social wellness trends are shaping digital health and wellness brands, which are in turn shaping the relationship their target consumers, primarily young women, have with their individual wellness. This is a representation of performative technoscience practices. Our research question encourages us to identify how “technoscience practices are shaped by but also shape the social” in terms of media and women’s health.
RESEARCH QUESTION / THESIS
How have women’s relationships with their health and wellness been impacted by the ways modern (“new age”/”new wave”) health and wellness industries market themselves?
Women’s wellness brands target female consumers by foregrounding personal sphere argumentation and using appeals to nature in their rhetoric and visual design. For many women, their experiences with health care institutions is highly clinical and off-putting, thus leading them to look for alternative solutions for their very real concerns about their health and wellbeing.
As a result of these messages and experiences, consumer buy-in shifts from being rooted in matters of efficacy and traditional expertise to values embedded in the brand and founder ethos.
WHO WE ARE: THE TEAM
Anika Maney is a 4th year Communication Studies major with Science and Risk Communications (SRC) and Theatre Arts minors. Her work focuses on science and medical communication and she is passionate about ethical women’s health communication.
Chelsie Lui is a 4th year Communication Studies major with minors in Chinese, Ethnic Studies, and Science and Risk Communications (SRC). She is interested in communication practices and myths both within and about digital communities. As a member of a student-startup, she has become increasingly passionate about the critical intersections between capitalistic business practices, social impact, and technology.
Mikaela Lincoln is a 4th year Journalism Major with a concentration in Public Relations. She will also complete a minor in both Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and Media Arts Society and Technology (MAST). After being run through the gamment of different medical or commercial “cure-alls” for her numerous health issues, this research became a passion.
Celia Francis is a 3rd year Anthropology and Geography major with a concentration in Media Arts, Society, and Technology (MAST). Her studies have always circled back to the impact media has on social issues. She will be pursuing a graduate program to complete a thesis that examines media’s relationship to gender norms.
This project was born out of our collective interest in women’s health and our observations growing up watching the evolution of “health and wellness” in the 21st century. As a group of female researchers, we were deeply interested in the relationship these commercial health and wellness companies and products had with the women who bought or saw them. “Health and wellness” companies represent a broad range of products and consumers interests that we felt compelled to analyze the varying methods of selling and marketing these products and their effects on the consumers.
Our team began this work by analyzing a handful of selected health and wellness brands from an ethnographic observation perspective. From there, we interviewed women who identified themselves as members of the health and wellness community to gain an understanding of their impressions of the space, major brands and actors within the space, and how they defined their relationship with health and medicine on the whole.
This project is a compilation of research and the insight gleaned from this ethnographic work which gives others a rich and detailed view into the world of “wellness” as it pertains to brands and female consumers in the 2010’s and 2020’s.
Technological progress is often a theme of advertising. We purchase things because they are New! Advanced! Improved!...In general, however, appeals to progress and the sublime have taken a new form. We are now inclined to purchase technologies, not for a sense of the progress of civilization or for the appreciation of grandeur, but for their contemporary manifestation. The “cool,” the “neat,” the “rad,” or the “awesome” (depending on your generation) are what we think of as versions of the new mini-sublime. Think about the stores that cater to tantalizing buyers with gadgets: from the high-tech of Sky Mall catalogs to the low-tech pleasures of office-supply stores, cooking-supply stores, and hardware stores. Just think about how often, when presented with a new device, the response is simply this: “Cool!” “Neat!” “Rad!” “Awesome!”
- Culture and Technology a Primer (p.24)
CONNECTION TO STS
We were interested in how these digital wellness communities understand and define their relationship between health and wellness and their identity (particularly gender). In studying this topic, we intended to study digital locations where these products are advertised and sold and these communities exist. We were also interested in learning how marketing likes this influences the relationships people have with science and the medical industrial complex. These interrelated parts of health, technology, marketing, and identity were our starting points for understanding our own experiences as young women - the target demographic of these brands and products.
In previous STS research into 21st century (specifically post-2010s) healthcare practices, there are discussions about the rearticulated definitions of what is considered “healthy” and “scientific.” Lynch (2020) elaborates on a shift towards “selective opposition to or denial of modes of inquiry and specific facts...that threaten...economic interests, religious beliefs and political doctrines, and collective habits,” (p.55). This mode of selective opposition is not necessarily “anti-science,” “post-truth,” or a systematic opposition to science as many people hold fragmented beliefs that at times align with scientific agreements and at times counter-agree; this is most seen in the adoption of the rhetoric of science, and shifts away from “more nuanced debate into over-generalized “scientific” claims in the public airing of disagreements” (Lynch, 2020, p.55).
This is relevant to understanding the complex relationship people, the members of these digital wellness communities, have with science in their daily lives; there is not necessarily an all-encompassing “anti-science” value, but that these individuals hold distinct values and beliefs that may or may not align with scientific agreements. STS research, including our own, aims to understand these individuals’ buy-in with these health and wellness brands and the rhetoric of science in which these brands appeal to individual (personal) values using technical language and imagery.
In addition to the marketing of these brands, the developed products these (North American) brands offer interact with the globalized health, particularly in relation to Eastern medical practices and traditional remedies. While the integration of these practices bring to light the diverse methods of healthcare, there are complications in “ownership” of these practices, both in evaluating the moral and appropriative nature of capitalizing on these non-Western, traditional practices as well as the legal nature of patenting and owning ancient practices (Cai, 1988; Timmerman 2003).
In this era of complex and global health and wellness beliefs and practices, there is also a broader movement towards personalized healthcare options (also known as precision medicine). This movement is equally exciting as it is concerning; these practices allow patients to be “empowered” in their choice of care, allowing them to participate more fully choosing health options that may not have been previously available (such as traditional and non-Western/or Eastern practices) (Prainsack, 2018). However, this brings to question the concept of humans as the autonomous, “rational, bounded entity” (Prainsack, 2018, p.24). Prainsack (2018) argues that as personalized healthcare becomes an increasingly popular option (with various external pressures through rhetoric and industry), it is important to evaluate personhood as a relational being; she suggests a “solidarity-based perspective” that focuses on the “relations and interactions” between individuals and systems of health rather than “isolated decision making” (pp.32-33).
We began with the goal of examining how systemic gender health inequalities meet emerging health science (new supplements and nutritional values) and technology (social media). From this project we hoped to understand how pseudoscientific and scientific language and imagery are appropriated to support marketing consumer products as better/more appropriate/necessary for women-identifying individuals (most often in reference to cisgender women). But as we began investigating further, we found the connections between these realms of health and wellness, identity (gender), wealth, aesthetics, and digital technology to be more fluid and complex than expected. The findings revealed shifting and overlapping appeals from the three argumentative spheres (personal, public, technical) to position seemingly technical sphere health and wellness centered language, aesthetics, and rhetoric (appeals) to evoke an appeal in the personal sphere (Goodnight, 2012).