PALO ALTO, United States — Fashion and beauty advertising almost universally depicts romanticised images of impossibly perfect women. Implicit is the message that with the right new products, consumers can become equally perfect. Of course, these images, which usually feature highly atypical women to start with, are also heavily doctored using image-editing software like Photoshop. But many women do not fully realise this.
Although the unattainable body image portrayed in advertising is not the sole cause of eating disorders, it is thought to be the biggest factor.
Some image editing can be as simple and harmless as adjusting contrast or brightness. But image-editing is also widely used to reshape the bodies of models. Sometimes overzealous editing can lead to shocking mishaps like misplaced arms or missing shoulders. But far more disturbing is the loss of self-confidence and self-worth that images of unattainable bodies can create in women who do not always know they are not real.
Earlier this year, a bill that specifically addresses image editing in advertising was introduced into the US House of Representatives. Dubbed the “Truth in Advertising Act,” the bill stated: “An increasing amount of academic evidence links exposure to such altered images with emotional, mental and physical health issues, including eating disorders, especially among children and teenagers. There is particular concern about the marketing of such images to children and teenagers.” The bill targets post-production edits that “materially change” characteristics of models’ faces and bodies, but gives no specific recommendation on a remedy.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 5 million people in the United States are affected by eating disorders. Although the unattainable body image portrayed in advertising is not the sole cause of eating disorders, it is thought to be the biggest factor. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports that a majority of teenage girls in the United States skip meals, take pills, vomit or fast in order to lose weight. Many of these girls also struggle with depression. Indeed, according to the ANAD, 47 percent of girls between 5th and 12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of images found in magazines.
In areas like accounting, journalism, law, medicine and politics, standards of full disclosure are common. And, indeed, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires marketers to make advertising disclosures clear and conspicuous. But unfortunately, these guidelines, as they currently stand, do not tackle the topic of image editing.
We are suggesting that a common standard of disclosure be adopted for images of people that appear in advertisements. These disclosures should identify the use of image-editing tools and describe their effect, for example: “Image Editing Note: this photo was edited to enhance brightness and remove the background” or “This photo was edited to remove facial scarring and slim the waist for aesthetic purposes.” With this approach, the altered images that appear in advertising would still be free to communicate the aesthetic statements of their makers, but consumers would be clearly informed as to how a model’s body was changed.
Many of us have seen the impact of aggressive image manipulation on friends and daughters. In a perfect world, marketers would start using aspirational but realistic body images in their ads. At a minimum, it’s time for modern advertising to accept new standards of disclosure.
Let there be truth in advertising.
Camilla Olson is creative director of Camilla Olson LLC. Samantha Jensen is a student at Castilleja High School and is interning at Camilla Olson as part of the Palo Alto Work Experience Program.
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