Tuesday, October 20, 2009

False advertising

A very interesting post from the New York Times' The Ethicist blog asks the question: should digitally-altered advertisement photos be identified as such, or even banned? There's more:
A Ralph Lauren ad, featuring a model with hips narrower than her head — so cartoonish, so grotesque, so right for Halloween — has become the latest focus of the already ongoing criticism of digitally altered fashion spreads, even though it ran only in Japan. Foes see such images as harming women by promoting a standard of beauty so false that it can be achieved solely by manipulating a photograph of an already slender model. This image is an extreme example of what happens to many ads, a practice that has become so dubious that some governments are taking action. Should ads using electronically altered images be banned? [...]

For us Americans, a ban on such ads might clash with our ideas about free expression, even when what’s expressed is that a particular mascara will lengthen your eyelashes, perhaps by as much as six inches, like twin fans glued to your eyelids, if I catch the implied promise. But we already accept labels that list a product’s ingredients or assess its nutritional value or warn of dangers in its use. Similar transparency should apply to phony-baloney advertising photographs.

There is the counterargument that fashion ads are inherently false: preternaturally beautiful models are worked over by makeup artists and hair stylists, illuminated by lighting designers and shot by sophisticated photographers. In such a context, where can we draw the line on deceit? Here’s where: with the electronic manipulation of a photograph. It may be an arbitrary limit, but we set arbitrary limits all the time. The 55-mile-an-hour speed limit draws on the knowledge of traffic engineers, but it is not a manifestation of some immutable law of nature.

It could also be argued that a labeling law, equitably applied, would require warnings on nearly all ads, including those that alter reality in other ways. For example, few roads are as serenely traffic-free as those in car commercials (and indeed some automobile ads on TV already note that they were photographed on a closed course). But here’s the distinction: Although that open road deliberately conveys a bogus sense of driving delight, the road itself is not the product. The car is the product. In fashion ads, however, whether for clothes or makeup or shampoo, the model’s beauty is the product, or at least the direct result the product is meant to achieve. Because that beauty cannot be obtained via the proffered merchandise but only through a tricked-out photo, this is a case of false advertising. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
Read the whole thing, and check out some of the images linked to in the original post.

I agree one hundred percent with that last sentence in the above quote. When a model is digitally altered to make it look as though her clothes, her makeup, her hair or so on are producing the effects of slenderness or a perfect complexion or beautiful color/waves/etc., this is a form of lying. Moreover, it's a form of lying that has been linked to serious negative effects: the low self-esteem and constant self-criticism in which many women engage, the extreme abuse of anorexia or bulimia or an addiction to unnecessary plastic surgery, the unrealistic expectations both men and women have in regard to female beauty, a healthy female body, or the accessibility of perfection, and so on.

I may have put this out here before (and I know that many people have serious and valid criticisms of the Dove company's "Campaign for Real Beauty," which are beyond the scope of this blog post). But just watch it, if you haven't seen it before:

When I first watched this with my girls, the moment at which we crossed from bemusement into shock was the segment of the video after the photo was taken, when the photo editing tools were used to lengthen the model's neck, remove imperfections on her skin, alter the coloring, change the shape of her eyes, and so forth. It was one thing to watch makeup being skillfully applied and hair being professionally done and re-done until it was just right for the picture; it was another to watch the relatively real image of a real woman changed into something that was not real, not even remotely so--and then this image placed on a billboard beside a product, implying that this product could make the average woman look like the altered image of the woman on the sign.

False advertising, indeed! Not even the model herself could look, in real life, like her altered image (not without seriously weird surgery, that is, and even then I don't think there's a cosmetic surgery procedure for lengthening one's neck).

Should a billboard, or magazine ad, or TV commercial containing such altered images be banned? Or would it be better to make advertisers admit, in letters large enough to be easily read or in one of those "legal disclaimer" voices which reads quickly, "This image has been digitally altered. Use of product will not produce results shown in image. Results shown in image are not capable of being produced by any known agency. Results shown in image are incompatible with human life and would be signs of a medical emergency. Striving to achieve results as shown in image might be indications of a serious mental condition, and might be construed as proof of legal incompetence in thirty-seven states...." or some such thing?

If nothing else, regulations requiring a disclaimer like that would make fashion ads unintentionally hysterically funny and thus much more interesting than they are now--but seriously, anything that would stop filling young women's heads with the notions that they should look like some digitally-altered/enhanced skeletal figure with a size-D chest and hips with the circumference of a real woman's wrist would be a good thing.


Kindred Spirit said...

Thank you so much for posting this, Erin. I just showed it to my eleven year old daughter, and I hope that all of your blog readers will consider showing it to their pre-teen and older children, both male and female. Beauty is as beauty does; and false faces hide false hearts. There is a lesson here for each of us, certainly one which is more than skin deep.

Irenaeus said...

Irony of ironies, of course, how often do you think Dove has had their ad folks do *just that*? They're here critiquing the cult of beauty for the sake of furthering the cult of beauty for the sake of $$$ through PR.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the in-depth, Red.

I saw the story at Yahoo.com about a model being fired for weighing 120 lbs at 5'10" yet the company was still using her image by altering it digitally, and stopped at the outrage that she was being 'used' but not compensated properly. I hadn't got around to thinking about this perfectly valid, with more far-reaching impact, of this 'take' on it, that ads are mass-distributed to influence different disfigured stereotypes. Of course I knew it happened, but hadn't realized to this extent. Makes sense to post a disclaimer for digitally altered photos.

Baron Korf said...

Dove's parent company owns Axe. Kinda two sided there.

Anyway I thought she was prettier before the computer alterations. Though she was very pretty in her own right.

Red Cardigan said...

I didn't realize that, Baron Korf. Ugh.

I still like the video, if only because it's so shocking to see what these advertisers actually do. But as I said in the post, Dove's supposed "campaign" has many valid and just criticisms leveled against it. Might be a good topic for a future post...

Irenaeus said...

I'm also thinking that your title is redundant. As St Umberto Eco teaches us, "Semiotics is about all the ways people lie."

Scott W. said...

The ad is certainly powerful and contains a pound of truth. But we have to be careful not to take a penny of error. In addition to what Baron pointed out, it seems to me there is a subtle swipe at the idea of intrinsic beauty. That it is all in the eye of the beholder, and that we can control the eye of the beholder through social or legislative fiat.

Aaron said...

I just assume that all advertising is lying. Not in an evil sense like they're out to get me, but in the sense of exaggerating and putting the product in the best light possible so I can't see the negatives.

It's like a kid who's trying to convince his parents to buy him a car. When he tells them how helpful it will be because he'll be able to run their errands, and how he'll take perfect care of it, and how he'll never break the speed limit, he's not lying outright, exactly, but if they believe him, they're pretty stupid.

Todd said...

Parent of a teen daughter here. Avoid commercial television (she's learned from an early age to mute, turn off, and/or channel surf during ads.)

Do the liberal thing: teach girls to take what's dished out by the culture with extreme skepticism, boycott the products, write letters, decline to participate in beauty or modeling pageants and encourage your daughter's friends to do likewise.

JMB said...

Isn't all art artifice and idealized in some way? Does anyone really believe that the Madonna in Bernini's Pieta truly represents a middle aged Palestinian woman? Who doesn't appreciate beauty? I would rather see an ad with a beautiful woman than one with buck teeth or a short stubby neck. I understand that it is idealized. But how different is photoshop from what the great Renaissance artists did to their subjects?

Baron Korf said...

Art, in the classical sense, is meant to convey beauty and truth. Michaelangelo was confronted with the same kind of objection you made about Mary. His reply was 'the Church is young', and considering one of Mary's titles is Mother of the Church, it makes sense. If we are young, so is our Mother. So it is truth.

Advertisement is meant to convey a product or service. Since the image they are using does not reflect what the product does (hence the photoshoping) it is harmful. And rather than just taking the raw photos, which were doctored up with make-up and hairstylists but still plausible, they take it a step beyond that.

c matt said...

I would agree with you JMB if these were simply artistic photographs to be hung on a museum wall, or over a fireplace, but these are ads, not art. These are communication designed and intended to convey that product X will achieve result Y, said result being accomplished through use of product X.

Perhaps I would not have as much objection to doctored photos for a Coke ad, where there is really no suggestion that drinking Coke will make you beautiful (Diet Coke or Coke Zero, on the other hand...).

But even then, some ads may be implying a connection between purchase/use of their product and attracting beautiful people (eg, AXE, some car commercials, etc.). In that case, the doctored photos may present more of a Truth in Advertising issue. But even those are not on the same level as direct beauty products using doctored photos.