How far should advertising be allowed to airbrush reality?

When was the last time we had an old-fashioned row over the pernicious effect of advertising on bulging waistlines, cyrrhotic livers and diseased lungs? Well over a year ago, I would guess. Thanks to a change of political regime and, more importantly perhaps, a tightening of public purse strings, many of the advertising industry’s bêtes noires (for which read single-issue NGOs and pressure groups) have – for the time being – beat a retreat to their burrows.

One resilient exception is the vexed issue of airbrushing, which just won’t go away. Should our model images – whether celebrity or mannequin – reveal their true selves, warts and all? Or should they be allowed to convey, thanks to the alchemy of digital manipulation, an idealised perfection? And if the latter, where do we draw the line?

Vintage image manipulation: Henry VIII fell for it

It has to be said, this is not exactly a fresh issue. The vintage victim of visual misrepresentation was Henry VIII – who became understandably incandescent on discovering his bride-to-be, the svelte young Duchess of Cleves portrayed by court painter Hans Holbein, was in the flesh a wholly unprepossessing ‘Mare of Flanders’.

Much more recently, the charge has been led by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who claimed L’Oréal’s scalp when she persuaded the Advertising Standards Authority that the cosmetics company had gone over the top in representing actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington as airbrushed examples of an impossible beauty.

Of the two, Henry had the better case: Holbein’s portrait blatantly lied. L’Oréal, on the other hand, might reasonably contend (and in fact did, in so many words) that it is in the business of portraying unattainable beauty: it sells a dream, not the fleshly reality. Swinson’s point, and presumably the ASA’s in adjudicating against the campaign, is that the images are of such unblemished perfection that young females – slavishly devoted to celebrity culture – will feel their own bodies wholly inadequate by comparison.

Strangely, what no one has done is to ask the target market itself. Until now that is. Out of Credos, the Advertising Association’s recently founded think tank, comes a new piece of research that tackles the attitudes of 10-21 year-old girls and their mothers towards advertising manipulation. On the face of it (the results have yet to be formally published), the mums seem a lot more outraged than their daughters, who display a cynical insouciance towards the whole business.

In a spirit of mischievous inquiry, AdMatters – the AA’s online house magazine – has decided to extend the parameters of Credos’ research to all comers. Equally mischievously, I pass on their proposal:

“We at AdMatters would like to conduct some research of our own. The Credos survey asked girls aged 10 to 21: which of the models below would you use in an ad aimed at “people like you”?

 


 

“Now we’d like to hear from you, our loyal readers. We care not what age or gender you are, merely that you are a person and buy things. Choose your favourite (1-4, left-right) and tweet @ad_association, with #bikinis. Results may or may not be published.”

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