OPINION: Mills on ... L'Oreal

So, ten days to go till Mayor Ken's glorious C-Day Revolution. As yet, we can only guess what the impact of the congestion charges will be on poster prices in central London. Will they fall if passing traffic declines? Or will they rise because people can see the posters better?

Your average motorist won't care about that, of course. They're more interested in whether the congestion charge displaces traffic from the inner core of London to the outer core on vital thoroughfares such as, to take an example at random ... er ... Hammersmith. As I struggle daily round the gridlock known as Hammersmith Broadway, that cunningly placed and charming Mark Warner poster is beginning to have an effect on me. But next to it sits an unmissable 96-sheet from L'Oreal, which I've puzzled over for many hours and seems to be booked on to this particular site in perpetuity.

It's very easy to dismiss this Publicis poster as a completely average, verging on the naff, piece of work, especially if you know that L'Oreal's UK office is opposite the poster on the corner of Hammersmith Road and the Broadway. Hats off, by the way, for a smart piece of poster buying.

You can imagine how the chests of the top L'Oreal executives puff up with corporate pride as they fight their way through the traffic on the way to Heathrow. Equally, bored L'Oreal staff, wondering whether they can really get away with claiming that Cream X not only defies age-wrinkling but increases your brain power and makes you irresistible to the opposite sex, can look out the window and find inspiration in the poster. The message is clear: if in doubt, patent it.

But let's not be too glib here, because there's something interesting going on in this poster. On the face of it, making such a bald claim about patents seems absurd. Why would anyone in the target market for L'Oreal products care about that? And who cares whether it has 440 or 44 patents?

It also flies in the face of current advertising wisdom, which has it that because we live in an era of product parity, advertising is less about rational product benefits and more about intangible emotional qualities.

If you take that view, then there's something charmingly retro about this ad. It's effectively the contemporisation of that old advertising standby, the scientist in the white coat, designed to reassure consumers they really were buying something better. Either that, or an admission that you can't advertise cosmetics any more on the back of some vague feel-good promise.

But clearly, even if it doesn't make any difference to its customers, L'Oreal is inordinately proud of its scientists. In fact, this is a seam L'Oreal has mined before with those Jennifer Aniston ads in which she'd stop half-way through, look knowingly at the camera, and say: "Here comes the science bit."

This suggests that, unlike its rivals, L'Oreal believes science is a competitive advantage and one that can be meaningfully marketed. We all know about Dyson but if the science doesn't stack up, then this approach is risky; remember Persil Power and the infamous manganese accelerator.

According to my man at the Patent Office, however, L'Oreal puts its money where its mouth is. It has no less than 28,462 patents, some 20,000 of which are linked to cosmetics products such as lipstick, nail varnish and mascara. To which the only sane consumer reaction is: isn't 28,000 patents a bit over the top, greedy perhaps?

The jarring bit, of course, is the "Because you're worth it" endline.

When will they ever learn that such faux sentiments fool nobody? But the idea that patents can of themselves be used so overtly is of more relevance to the marketing community, and one that they might take seriously in the future.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Only among New Scientist readers.

File under ... B for boffin-friendly.

What would the chairman's wife say? "I suppose it's all a way of

justifying those absurd prices."