ULTA's 'Trading Faces' Is An Ideal Brand Showcase In Need Of Minor Tweaks

I am a middle-aged white dude with a young kid, which means that I choose restaurants based on their proximity to parking and clothes based on their proximity to the bed. My thoughts are generally consumed by quotidian matters (the errands I run, the lunches I neglect to stock with items from food groups other than pretzeled breads). When my mind idles, it gravitates towards sports and pop-cultural effluvia (stats, rankings, “I wonder what Dido is up to nowadays,” etc.).

All this is to say: I am not the person to be asking about beauty-related topics - nor, to be honest, about current events, movies, music, travel, nature, nutrition or hygiene. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t ask me about anything at all. Let me enjoy my gradual slide into intellectual and demographic irrelevance, will you?

At the same time, it’s not possible to ping-pong around the Internet without butting up against at least a few unfamiliar products and brands. And so it was that I found myself face-to-computer-face with the first episode of ULTA’s “Trading Faces,” a new series in which a pair of comely ladies make each other over in their own image. It debuted a few weeks back with “Hollywood/Dollywood,” which saw Hollywood Chelsea and Dollywood Ashley usher us into a new, giggly era of transcontinental cuteness barter. If only the prime players in the Middle East could transcend their differences quite so adorably. 

The idea behind “Trading Faces” may not be particularly novel - we live in an era of spouse, domicile and job tele-swaps - but it’s an easy fit for the beauty/fashion category. As a brand, ULTA is well served by the format: the products it sells are showcased in their natural habitat, without artifice or OMG BLUSH force-fitting. Neither the ULTA logo nor the brand name appears in the episode, not even as an incidental backdrop to the post-transformation Chelsea/Ashley photo shoots. I know the impulse is to plaster one’s brand all over the place, because brand videos ain’t exactly exercises in self-abnegation, but other marketers could take a cue from ULTA’s easy and campaign-serving ego subversion.

It’s the execution of “Trading Faces” that’s the problem. Rather than present the products and protagonists in a semi-adult manner, the series instead looks to “House of Style”-era MTV for creative inspiration. The cuts are quick and random, the pacing overcaffeinated, the background music alternately plucky and thumpy. Internet video belongs (and should belong) to the genre of short-attention-span theater, but “Trading Faces” could get the point across without the overtly stylistic flourishes.

Also, “Trading Faces” doesn’t do right by its protagonists. In the interest of making them match our preconceived notions of how a hip city gal and post-debutante belle should look and behave, “Hollywood/Dollywood” renders Chelsea and Ashley one-dimensional cardboard creations. Ashley engages in roughly 42 different acts of staged adorability: playing with leaves on a sun-kissed afternoon, riding an old-style bicycle, you name it. Similarly, Chelsea wears the expected uniform (look-at-me boas) and talks the expected talk (she lists architecture as a beauty/style influence) of an acceptably bohemian L.A. dweller.

When the two finally meet, the encounter is choreographed within an inch of its life, right down to the props (Hollywood wields a hair dryer, Dollywood a can of hair spray) and language (both introduce their what-I-learned-from-this-transformative-exercise testimonials with “after this experience…”). Perhaps Ashley and Chelsea are just this uncomplicated in real life, right down to their geographically/stylistically prototypical first names, but the series does them no favors by drawing them so narrowly.

These flaws are fixable, in any event. Subsequent episodes of “Changing Faces” need only dial back the editing flourishes, dump the pre-programmed language and excise the dippier moments from the participants’ monologues (“if I was [sic] an object, I would probably be, like, a doily” - so, Ashley, any thoughts on genetically modified turnips?). ULTA has happened upon an ideal brand showcase, which is the hard part. Tweaking the execution should be a snap by comparison.

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