On hundreds of thousands of nightstands across the country sits a small plastic jar that contains a translucent amalgam of glycerin, peptides, and daydreams. Baebody eye gel is regularly the top-selling product in its category on Amazon and almost never drops below No. 5. Its marketing materials make three promises: to smooth wrinkles, brighten dark circles, and deflate puffiness. That’s code for looking younger, livelier, lovelier.

Over the past six years, Baebody, a Chicago-based brand that also offers face serums, body scrubs, shampoos, and supplements, has built a cult following. The eye gel generated an estimated $3.4 million in revenue last year just on Amazon, according to Viral Launch, which creates market research tools for Amazon sellers. It costs $25 for a 1.7-ounce jar — about half the price of a typical eye cream for more than three times as much product. Baebody as a whole raked in about $400,000 in Amazon sales in August, Viral Launch estimates, which put it in the top 3 percent of all sellers on the site.

But while its eye gel has about 19,000 ratings, most of them — you guessed it — glowing, it still retains a certain degree of obscurity. All but one of the six experts I interviewed for this story had never heard of it, including a dermatologist who polled his colleagues at Northwestern Medicine (the number who recognized the name: zilch). Search online forums populated by skin care junkies and you’ll come up largely empty. Until this summer, when Baebody’s newish owner, New World Natural Brands, gave its website a soft-hued millennial polish, it was a clunky collection of stock photos and halfhearted promo language: “You should join our newsletter :).”

That anonymity, at least in the beginning, was by design. Baebody is among a class of purveyors that Beauty Independent, an industry website, has dubbed “egoless beauty brands.” That’s a polite way of describing people who hawk generic skin care elixirs that they have little to no expertise in creating. What the founders of Baebody do have is a genius-level understanding of how to operate on Amazon by identifying hot search terms, analyzing shopping trends, and possibly exploiting online reviews. “They are nobodies from nowhere,” says someone with knowledge of Baebody’s inner workings. “What they are is Amazon savants.”

Photo: Lauren Williamson

Those unknowns are Ian and Devon Taylor, brothers originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who started Baebody out of Devon’s apartment in Chicago in 2014. Ian, then 23, had recently gotten a bachelor's in engineering at the University of Michigan, and Devon, then 19, was a student at Loyola University. Baebody was Ian’s second e-commerce business. A year earlier, he started the supplement brand Toniiq; it has seen some modest success, and he continues to operate it. He and Devon had no experience in skin care, the source says, but they did know how to identify fads. (Neither of the Taylors, who are no longer affiliated with Baebody, responded to requests for an interview.)

The brothers dissected Amazon’s rating system and figured out which keywords were fire — terms like “retinol” and “hyaluronic acid,” which capitalized on the skin care mania of the past half decade. They took out ads on Facebook and launched email marketing campaigns, but paid little attention to Baebody’s social media accounts, pages that would normally shape a brand’s personality. “It’s surprisingly easy to break into,” says Will Mitchell, who runs the e-commerce consulting business StartupBros and helped build a successful skin care brand on Amazon. Beauty and personal care products make up the fourth-largest category on the site, according to the Amazon research tool Jungle Scout. Most of the non-brand-name products are created by private-label manufacturers — the kind that make generics — and you’ll often see near-identical ingredient lists and even packaging. “Very few have their own labs for formulating,” Mitchell says.

Regardless of the origins, there’s a certain amount of magical thinking that goes into almost any over-the-counter skin care product, but especially eye treatments. Topical potions can temporarily plump and brighten the area by moisturizing it, but they won’t make a long-term difference, says Walter Liszewski, a dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial. Baebody’s eye gel has a few components that could potentially do something, he says: Matrixyl 3000 and a peptide complex both build collagen. But without knowing the concentrations or whether the molecules of the carrier solvent are small enough to penetrate the skin, it’s impossible to say if the product is effective. And, while not harmful per se, several of the gel’s ingredients — including vitamin E, jojoba oil, and a Burpee catalog’s worth of plant extracts — are common irritants. “The eyelids and around the eyes are among the thinnest skin,” Liszewski says. “And it’s very common for women to develop a rash due to irritation from fragrance [like from the plant extracts].”

So why have thousands of people raved about the product? Commenters on Amazon have questioned the authenticity of those ratings, and indeed, the brand fares not so well on Fakespot and ReviewMeta, sites that grade the potential legitimacy of online evaluations. Those sites look at factors such as how many reviews Amazon has removed for sketchiness (more than 5,300 on the eye gel, according to ReviewMeta), the amount of repetition in the language across reviews, and unusual patterns in the volume. ReviewMeta opined that 60 percent of the reviews of Baebody’s eye gel were “potentially unnatural,” while Fakespot gave the quality of its reviews a B. (It gave the company overall a D.)

The CEO of New World Natural Brands, Shannon Curtin, who joined the company in July 2019, is adamant that Baebody hasn’t gamed any endorsements during her tenure. “Since I’ve been on this business, we haven’t had any fake reviews. I don’t know if that was practiced in the market prior, but we haven’t had any.” Whatever strategy the founders used to collect reviews appears to be different than the one Baebody employs now: If you look at a graph of the eye gel’s review volume over time, it’s a steep climb that tilts to a gentle incline starting March 27, 2018 — two days before Baebody was sold.

Rating manipulation is common on Amazon, especially for beauty products, Mitchell says. There are a host of platforms on the web that help brands offer rebates to cover all or most of the cost of a product in exchange for a review. Even mainstream brands do giveaways to boost engagement — we’ve all seen disclosures like “This review was collected as part of a promotion,” which the Federal Trade Commission started requiring in 1980. The FTC hasn’t updated its testimonial guidelines since 2009, so how they apply to today’s practices is murky, but it has filed complaints against companies that haven’t disclosed when free products were traded for positive reviews. Sites that facilitate this practice often take the leave-no-trace principle seriously, so there’s no way to know for sure if a brand used them. Baebody’s website itself doesn’t offer products or payments in exchange for reviews, and it isn’t known if it ever did. But Ian Taylor’s other company, Toniiq, still uses rebate platforms, and it even has a website (tqfreebottle.com) whose main purpose appears to be swapping complimentary products for Amazon feedback.

Amazon banned incentivized ratings in 2016, and it now deletes comments that seem scammy and shuts down shops altogether if there’s too much suspicious activity. But some retailers still nudge the review process a little too much because of the big upside. “We repeatedly see that online reviews do matter — they do increase purchases,” says Ewa Maslowska, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s done research in conjunction with the Medill IMC Spiegel Digital and Database Research Center at Northwestern University on how reviews influence purchases. They lend credibility but also boost visibility on websites that factor reviews into their algorithm. And they are especially important to customers buying “high-risk” products — such as, perhaps, something you put near your eyes.

Maslowska looked at Baebody’s Amazon reviews and offered her opinions in an email. “It is an interesting case indeed,” she wrote. Several factors lend the evaluations credibility: a number of customers have uploaded before-and-after pictures, and many of the ratings are based on verified purchases. “The average rating would suggest that not everyone loves it, which seems credible, as no face cream is ideal for everyone,” she wrote. “However, the dispersion of star ratings is rather high. There are many five-star reviews but also many one-star reviews.” Research generally shows that products that use incentivized reviews tend to have few ratings in the middle ground, though it is only one potential factor.

These days, New World is reshaping Baebody's image to give it a little more sheen. It's developing new products, including a collagen cream and tea, formulated with a master tea maker. “We created something that’s special and unique, and we did it ourselves,” Curtin says. The brand is also eyeing brick-and-mortar retail, the kind that, for better or worse, still lends trustworthiness that the internet just can’t provide.

In the end, does any of this matter? “I don’t really believe in eye cream,” Liszewski says. “They are very expensive. They don’t really do much. But I feel very much sort of like Marie Kondo. Does it make you happy? Does it bring you joy? For some people it does. It’s the smell of the cream. It’s the shape of the bottle. It’s the way it feels in our hands.” Because beauty, like marketing, is perception.