S. Bryn Austin, Sc.D., and Tamara Sobel, J.D., C.S.E.

Body Politics

Photoshopping Ourselves to Death

Why advertisers should "get real" with their ad images.

Posted Jun 14, 2019

Fake photoshopped ads can be hilarious, no doubt about it. There was the elegant mock Dior ad featuring Jennifer Lawrence falling on her way to the podium to claim her Oscar a few years back. And it was hard not to laugh when Vanity Fair photoshopped Oprah Winfrey a third hand.

pugler/Shutterstock
Source: pugler/Shutterstock

But the increasing use of digital alteration in actual advertising on a large scale isn’t so funny.

Photoshop-type technology is now used universally and unsparingly in the thousands of images of models and celebrities we see every day. In particular, pictures of female models and celebrities lack any signs of blemishes, cellulite, or wrinkles, and are often made thinner and curvier than seems humanly possible.

It’s also commonly used to lighten skin tones on women of color to make them appear whiter. And while digitally altered images of men in ads have become more common in recent years, girls and women are exposed to far greater amounts of highly manipulated images of their own gender than are boys and men.

While some evolutionary psychologists believe that pursuing "beauty" is natural and tied to our genetic and reproductive fate, the rules of the game have changed since the time of our ancient ancestors—and so have the outcomes.

Studies show that constant exposure to these artificially perfected commercial images of women is linked to low body satisfaction and low self-esteem in girls. Low self-image can lead to depression, anxiety, and disordered eating. One academic study even linked increased body dissatisfaction in girls to poorer performance in solving a school math problem.

And while there are many causes of depression and eating disorders, these conditions disproportionately affect young women, syncing with a time when whopping numbers of girls and women loathe their own bodies. It’s all too common for teenage girls to pop, drink, and get hooked on dangerous dietary supplements to try and reach an unnatural weight.

Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder will affect 30 million Americans in their lifetime; a disproportionate majority of them are female. These are among the deadliest of any psychiatric condition—someone dies from an eating disorder every 62 seconds in this country. The human—and financial—costs are massive.

Some corporations have started to acknowledge their role in helping or harming young women. In response to growing backlash, a few companies have begun birthing a movement of mindful, realistic advertising for the younger generations.

In 2014, the clothing company Aerie launched an ad campaign featuring unretouched images and more realistic size models (also including more racially diverse models, another equally important discussion.) Target followed with a similar campaign in 2017.

In 2018, CVS launched a seal of transparency on their beauty advertising, pledging to show consumers which images had been altered and which hadn’t, aiming to use less of the former and more of the latter. The verdict was overwhelmingly positive for each.

But so far, only a handful of companies are on board. That’s why last week, Massachusetts state lawmaker Rep. Kay Khan introduced a bill to accelerate change by providing tax incentives for companies using realistic advertising. “Realistic advertising” is defined as commercial images that don’t change a human model’s skin tone or texture, body size or shape. The bill deliberately offers the reward of tax incentives rather than punishing fines or banning content, to steer clear of First Amendment territory. It’s an innovative approach—if it's passed, Massachusetts would be the very first state to implement this type of measure.

Creating and implementing compliance standards could look like a challenge here. But useful blueprints may soon be emerging for these type of standards, coming from independent, qualified, non-profit sources. And while proposing any type of corporate tax cut can be thorny, similar tax incentivizing has been used to tackle other public health issues.

The Massachusetts bill is not a silver bullet, but it is likely an important step in the right direction. Children (of all genders) still need supportive, non-shaming environments at home, at school, and in the community to promote body confidence. Media literacy skills must be taught universally so young people can independently distinguish healthy from unhealthy content in media. But, in our view, more companies need to take the phrase “corporate social responsibility” seriously—and in 2019, that means using digital media responsibly. Offering them a sweet carrot may be just the right start.