We were a little surprised when we picked up Vogue’s ‘Ageless Style’ issue this month featuring Helena Bonham Carter as the cover model. Where was she? Because instead of the beautiful and quirky 47 year old actress, the chislelled features of an alabaster 21 year old looked at us from its glossy cover. Are Vogue staffers so immune to the effects of post production that they failed to notice the obvious irony of their ageless style cover shoot?
The beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar industry preying on women’s desire to look younger, slimmer, and more beautiful. There has always been an element of exaggeration in claims made by cosmetics companies but over the last decade the promises made regarding products have gotten more outlandish and many advertisements now feature women who are far removed from reality. Advances in technology have resulted in photographs so airbrushed that the models in them often resemble paintings or cartoon characters rather than human beings. In May 2009, Ralph Lauren released an advertisement in the USA that featured model Philippa Hamilton. The picture had been airbrushed to such an extent that Hamilton’s head appeared bigger than her waist. Such advertisements have lead to increased debate on misleading advertisements in the cosmetics industry and the effect it has on society. Laterally, we must ask, who is regulating the industry and is it working?
Evidence suggests that people in the UK are experiencing serious body image problems and a growing body of scientific evidence reinforces the link between negative body image and exposure to idealized images. A recent study found that one in four people are depressed about their body and another study found that almost a third of women say that they would sacrifice a year of their lives to achieve the ideal body weight and shape. Even more concerning are the statistics relating to our children. The American Medical Association released figures suggesting that 53 percent of 13-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies, and by the time they turn 17, that number rises to 78 percent. Another study found that almost half of all girls between ages 3 and 6 worried that they were fat. The AMA contend that airbrushed images in advertisements play a contributing role in these statistics. The problem with airbrushing is that consumers don’t see the negative effects of extreme thinness. Former Cosmopolitan editor Leah Hardy recently admitted that she had airbrushed anorexic models to look less unwell but kept their extreme thinness. This resulted in pictures of women with zero body fat but that still exuded health and radiance. The models retained 22-inch waists but also had bright clear skin and breasts thanks to digital enhancements. “Thanks to retouching, our readers never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. The models’ skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology … A vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist” stated Hardy.
Although the general use of airbrushing isn’t regulated and magazines are free to use post production techniques to whatever extent they wish, cosmetics advertising is subject to regulation by the Advertising Standards Authority, the body that takes action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements. Under Section 3 of the UK advertising code, advertisements must not materially mislead or be likely to do so and must not mislead by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product or service. Now, a quick flick through any women’s magazine on the newsagent’s shelf will reveal advertisements for lipsticks that promise not to budge for fourteen hours and mascara advertisements where the model is obviously wearing at least three sets of false lashes. In 2011, the ASA did ban advertisements by Maybelline New York and Lancôme, both of which are owned by cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The print advertisements featured digitally enhanced pictures of the model Christy Turlington and actress Julia Roberts. The adverts were banned because they didn’t accurately represent what Maybelline’s ‘The Eraser’ and Lancôme’s ‘Teint Miracle’ foundations could actually achieve. Both images appeared to be heavily airbrushed. Since then though, incidents of banning cosmetics advertisements for being misleading have been few and far between. So how do they get away with it? Aren’t the ASA doing their job? Well, that’s not really a fair assessment but unfortunately there are a number of deficiencies in the current system.
Although the ASA proactively check the media to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, the sheer volume of advertisements means many will go under the radar. The current system is often dependent on members of the public complaining before advertisements will be investigated. A danger in the system is that consumers are becoming saturated in air-brushed, stylized images. If consumers fail to notice that these images are altered and perceive them as ‘normal’ they are unlikely to file a complaint. The 2011 banned advertisements by Maybelline New York and Lancôme, have been on the back of complaints by MP Jo Swinson who has a campaign against the over use of post production techniques in cosmetics advertising. Neither adverts had received any complaints from members of the public despite the misleading claims and heavily airbrushed images featured in both adverts. Another consideration is timing – each advert took five months to rule on from when the initial complaint was made. Advertisements are not pulled during the review stage and can continue until such time as the ASA Council decide that they are required to be amended or withdrawn. In many instances the advertisements have already reached the end of their cycle by the time the adjudication even comes out!
The wording of the current advertising code also means that small print can act as a ‘get of jail for free card’ for advertisers. The problem with small print is that it’s just that, small. Consumers won’t always examine an advertisement in the level of detail required to notice tiny wording at the bottom of an advertisement and even if they do, it hardly negates the negative psychological effects caused by these images seeping into our subconscious.
But, ultimately, the biggest barrier is the industry’s failure to acknowledge the negative effects of misleading cosmetics advertising. Despite the growing evidence to the contrary, fashion and beauty industry insiders insist that digitally altering and re-touching provides a positive experience for consumers. They argue that the images offer an escape to a more glamorous world and that fashion provides a dream that is important to women. According to Channel 4 TV presenter and fashion stylist Nicky Hambleton-Jones, these kind of images are aspirational – that ‘we all want to look at pictures that make us feel good and think isn’t that gorgeous’ and that ‘in the end, these companies are businesses who make money and will sell their products the best way they can.’ While this may be true to an extent, surely this must be weighed against the alarming statistics linking airbrushed images to negative body image. Three year olds thinking they’re fat? There’s nothing aspirational or gorgeous about that.