The ethics in advertising


Look around you. Chances are that you are surrounded by at least one advertisement, whether it is on your phone, computer, or in your view. If that advertisement is one related to beauty, chances are that it has been photoshopped.

Some argue that photo-shop is no big deal when it comes to advertising products that claim enhance oneÕs appearance. It has become such a commonly used tool that many discount its effect on our own self-image and our perceptions of the advertised product.

But letÕs step back for a second and ask the question Ð is it ethical to portray products in a way that is unrealistic and misleading?

The United Kingdom doesnÕt think so. In 2009 the government enacted restrictions on photoshopped ad campaigns. Since then, the Advertising Standards Authority has banned numerous ad campaigns, several in particular from LÕOreal and LÕOrealÕs Lanc?me and Maybelline brands.

Three particular ad campaigns that were banned in the U.K. from 2009-2012 were targeted toward women and featured photoshopped images of Julia Roberts, Christy Turlington, and Natalie Portman as endorsers of the product. The advertised products ranged from mascara to concealer to foundation.

The specific reason for banning these ads, in the words of Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Jo Swinson, was because the ads were Ònot representative of the results the products could achieve.Ó While LÕOreal admitted that the images had been digitally manipulated, in a press release the company claimed the they Òaccurately illustratedÕ the effects that their cosmetics could achieve.

While the U.S. is nowhere close to enacting a ban similar to the U.K., it is worth noting that our policy of reporting enhanced images varies dramatically by industry. On every cereal box there is a line of text that reads Òenlarged to show detail. Ó And yet ads for mascara will never say Òeyelashes enlarged for effect.Ó

There is an argument that beauty ads are aspirational, and not reality. But you could also say that the premise of every advertisement is to make a product as desirable as possible. So where do you draw the line between making a product enticing and selling a lie?

While most viewers of beauty advertisements say that they can easily identify if an ad has been airbrushed, what is not known is how much the altered image differs from the original. By simply viewing an ad, there is no way to deduce whether the product is effective or not.

There is a larger issue at stake here. In her speech on the ASAÕs decision to ban LÕOrealÕs ads, Jo Swinson said, ÒPictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they donÕt reflect reality. With one in four people feeling depressed about their body, itÕs time to consider how these idealized images are distorting our idea of beauty.Ó

It has been well documented by the BBC that eating disorders among women have more than doubled in the past 15 years, and additionally that about half of young women between ages 16 and 21 say that they would consider cosmetic surgery.

What has been less documented is that digitally altered images have negative effects on men and their self-image as well.

Deborah Schooler, a researcher at San Francisco State University, was published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity with her study of 184 male college students. She found that the more these young men ÒconsumedÓ enhanced media, the worse they felt about their bodies and self-image.

Digitally altering images, while seemingly innocent, is wreaking havoc on our self-image and psychological wellbeing. If ads must be enhanced, it is reasonable that they should be required to state that they have been Òenhanced for effectÓ in clear terms.

To answer the original question, it is both unethical and psychologically harmful to portray products in a way that is blatantly unrealistic. Without a change in advertising standards, the cycle of misrepresentation and self-loathing will only continue.