Re-Framing Empowerment: Allergan, Breast Implants and a New, Improved You

By Christine Cupaiuolo — September 2, 2008

What’s the most empowering action you’ve taken recently? Did you ask for a raise? Stand up for a cause? Run for president?

If you answered “Got breast implants!” well, Allergan’s marketing is working.

Allergan is a global pharmaceutical company perhaps best known for producing Botox. In late 2005, Allergan merged with Inamed, maker of silicone breast implants — just before silicone breast implants received FDA approval.

Earlier this summer, Orange County Register columnist Colin Stewart, who is admittedly no fan of elective cosmetic surgery but who remains “dazzled by the ways Allergan makes the idea” of “injecting, slicing and rearranging body parts” seem appealing, devoted a column to Allergan’s marketing scheme, which is all about empowering you:

In its new breast-implant campaign, for example, Allergan’s marketers imply that implants are artful, like designer clothing. Even though implants are basically plastic bags filled with silicone or saline solution, Allergan portrays them as sources of power, freedom, individuality and self-confidence.

That’s a big change from last year, when Allergan bought Santa Barbara-based Inamed and its breast implants for $3.2 billion. Then, the implants were labeled “Style 68,” “Style 101,” etc.

The old labels were cold and clinical, so Allergan is giving them a new identity that sounds natural, feminine and artful. In a new marketing campaign, they’re the “Natrelle collection of breast implants.”

Breast implants can seem crudely sexual, but Allergan combats that impression too, ingeniously presenting them almost as a feminist issue. The company says it’s “empowering” women with information about their options.

The tag line for the Natrelle collection: “To each her own.”

Studies of breast-implant users reveal that women “aren’t getting them to attract men, but to feel greater confidence in their femininity,” says Robert Grant, president of the Allergan Medical division.

Presumably, women whose natural attributes have Natrelle enhancements will gain self-confidence from each masculine head that turns when they walk past.

“Nearly 400,000 women did something fabulous for themselves last year,” is Allergan’s message about Inamed’s breast implants. But to Grant that number isn’t fabulous enough.

“The $3.2 billion price for Inamed isn’t worth it for us” at that rate, Grant says. “We can grow (the rate of annual implants) to in excess of one million procedures.”

How else is Allergan making a show of empowering women? Let’s consider the research. Last November, a review of studies on the safety of breast implants appeared in the journal Annals of Plastic Surgery. The authors concluded that “the weight of the epidemiologic evidence does not support a causal association between breast implants and breast or any other type of cancer, definite or atypical connective tissue disease, adverse offspring effects, or neurologic disease. Women with breast implants do not present with more advanced stages of breast cancer or suffer impaired survival after breast cancer diagnosis.”

In fact, the only caution the authors registered concerned the observed higher incidence of suicide among with women with implants. On this point, they recommended future studies “to determine whether the consistently observed excess of suicide among women with implants reflects underlying psychiatric illness prior to breast augmentation surgery or other factors.”

But if that sounds, well, mostly reassuring, there’s more.

After the study was published, Diane Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families notified health activists that the journal article’s four authors all have financial ties to the breast implant industry. The lead author, Joseph McLaughlin, has been a consultant to Inamed/Allergan.

“In fact, McLaughlin is an author of almost every study on breast implants of the last 10 years, all funded by Dow, all concluding that implants are safe,” wrote Zuckerman. “With a couple of exceptions, the only studies he hasn’t co-authored are ones by NCI and FDA, which found significant increases in several illnesses among women with implants.”

“This isn’t a new study, it’s a review of all the old studies that McLaughlin co-authored. So, he’s summarizing his own work (without admitting it is his) and once again concluding that implants are safe.”

Makes you want to replace the guards at the hen house, no?

Despite the increasing popularity of breast implants — breast augmentation was the most popular plastic surgery procedure in 2007, with close to 350,000 procedures done — the safety debate rarely breaks through the marketing noise.

But thoughtful and personal critiques are carried out each day in blogs like Beauty and the Breast, which covers the impact of breast implants, and in documentaries such as “Absolutely Safe,” which has a terrific website filled with resources, including a section on the data debate.

Another documentary, “America the Beautiful,” which opened (or will be opening) in some theaters this summer, looks at the obsession with plastic surgery in general — and how surgeries can go horribly wrong.

And who knows — perhaps “empowerment” will be reclaimed in the future to mean making choices and taking risks that truly improve, not harm, our well-being. Then again, the FDA could approve the lip implants

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