In 2011, Lancôme took down its London billboard ads featuring Photoshopped images of famous women – Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington – at the urging of a British Parliament member who said the ads were “not representative of the results the products could achieve.”
That same year, the American Medical Association concluded that “photoshopped” ads which portray unrealistic human bodies have such a detrimental effect on body image and self esteem, particularly among teenage girls, that it became the organization’s official opinion to strongly discourage the production of these ads. Those actions, and subsequent studies, have touched off a debate that could soon culminate with legislation that opens the door to new regulation of the advertising industry.
Last month Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, along with two other co-sponsors, introduced a bill that would ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which already regulates false advertising as a means of consumer protection, to develop a regulatory framework for ads that materially change the faces and bodies of the people in them. The bill doesn’t propose actual regulation — it just asks for some preliminary research and recommendations, deliverable within the next 18 months. But the legislation would give the FTC the power to put it’s recommendations into practice. So, if a diet or beauty product puts a model in their advertisement, but then photoshops the hell out of the image to the point where the model’s appearance is “materially” altered, the FTC could eventually have the power to step-in and regulate the ad based on it being deceptive.
The intent of the bill may be noble, but what about 1st Amendment rights? Obviously, artistic expression is a protected form of free speech. The bill would not effect magazine covers or editorial content – only advertisements meant to sell products. The FTC already exercises that power over advertisements as a means of consumer protection, it’s just usually an authority used on literal words or statements. The bill’s sponsors are making the argument that there is enough statistical evidence linking computer-altered images with negative physical and psychological behaviors to warrant agency oversight. Indeed, when 69% of elementary school girls say magazine images influence their concept of ideal body shape, there is cause for concern.
I would argue that allowing the FTC to make regulatory calls on imagery in advertising is not as clear-cut as making a call on an advertising claim that is explicitly laid out in text. There is a certain amount of artistry in much of the Photoshopping we see in beauty ads that is not meant to be taken as a literal product claim. Many of these ads are idealized, and aspirational, works of creativity. It is not the “distorted” model who is being sold or promised, but the far more nebulous idea of “beauty.” Can you really regulate an ideal? The notion of a government regulatory agency policing them is somewhat disconcerting.
You can follow the conversation, and debate, over the Truth in Advertising Act 2014 through the #TruthInAds hashtag. As an advertising agency that works to make a positive social impact, we are glad #TruthinAds has sparked more awareness of the need to address the unrealistic body image often promulgated by advertisers. But in a free society, we do have some concerns about regulatory agencies making calls on what qualifies as “false advertising” and acceptable levels of Photoshopping.