/ Health, Shopping

‘Misleading’ beauty ad banned but the industry’s still ugly

Julia Robert's L'Oreal ad - Original photography by Mario Testino

The beauty world was abuzz yesterday with news that a L’Oreal foundation ad has been banned for retouching images. But doesn’t this just highlight cracks in the industry that we already know are there?

The ad, which featured a rather flawless image of Julia Roberts, was challenged by MP Jo Swinson.

The original photograph was taken by Mario Testino.

Jo Swinson believed the flawless skin in the image was the result of digital manipulation, not the product, a complaint which was upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The absurd nature of advertising

Reading L’Oreal’s defence on the ASA Adjudication was eye-opening. Here’s a small extract:

‘L’Oreal (UK) Ltd (LancĂ´me) said the image was taken by Mario Testino […] They said he used a lot of light, which was flattering, and reduced the appearance of imperfections by giving the image a soft focus and lower resolution.

‘LancĂ´me said the flawless skin in the image was also due to Julia Roberts’ naturally healthy and glowing skin, and supplied pictures of her on the red carpet to support that.’

I’m sure all this is true, and while it’s a suitable defence given the context of the complaint, I had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Using an image of one of the world’s most beautiful women, photographed by one the world’s most famous photographers, doesn’t prove how great your beauty product is. Put it on a real woman and make her skin look flawless if you really want to prove your point.

Campaign for real ads

I’ve always been a big fan of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty for this very reason. Using real women in simple white underwear, it proves that you don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. The campaign has set up a Self-Esteem Fund and helped to educate over five million girls and young women about body image and self esteem, through charities such as B-eat.

It’s a shame that the leading cosmetics companies still use famous faces almost exclusively to advertise their products. And it’s a shame that it still seems to work. Most of us can spot an airbrushed image a mile off, but we’ve come to accept it as part and parcel of the advertising industry.

So I say, good on Jo Swinson for picking up on this issue, and I couldn’t agree more with her concerns:

‘Half of young women between 16 and 21 say they would consider cosmetic surgery and we’ve seen eating disorders more than double in the last 15 years. There’s a problem out there with body image and confidence. The way excessive retouching has become pervasive in our society is contributing to that problem.’

But if airbrushing and retouching have become embedded in our culture, how can we get rid of it again? I put this question to our health expert, Joanna Pearl, who said she welcomed the ASA ruling but felt it had come too late:

‘It comes after the ads have been shown, so people have already been influenced by images of possibly unobtainable beauty. I’d like to see manufacturers always behave responsibly so ads showing effects that cannot be backed up by sufficient evidence aren’t shown in the first place.’

Do you think this is a realistic solution? Should advertisers take more responsibility and have tougher regulations, or is it down to you and me to recognise when ads have been overworked?


I think “ban” is too strong a word, all the ASA can do is ask the company not to use teh advert again.
It has no powers to enforce its decision, it can just t ask publications not to accept adverts from companies who breach its code.

I hate dishonesty in advertising but the ASA has more important issues to worry about, such as what is in the food we buy.

If the buyers of cosmetics do not realise that the complexion of models is ‘enhanced’ then perhaps cosmetic manufacturers should be required to employ less-than-perfect models with at least two zits, or to add these using Photoshop.

I think most people generally realise that photoshop and other enhancement techniques are used, but I worry that they don’t understand the extent of it. I always assumed that video/photo editors might touch up to remove the odd spot or blemish, but pictures are now routinely changed to make women look slimmer, change their proportions, give them bigger eyes, remove any evidence of body hair, change hairlines, eyebrow lines, etc.

I think it would be really valuable for people to be better educated about this – I certainly didn’t know much about it. It could also help young people grow up without unrealistic ideas about what their bodies could and should look like.

I understand what you are saying Nikki, and the number of people who suffer from eating disorders as a consequence of trying to improve their appearance means that this important, so sorry for my flippant posting.

One of the problems is that most of us like to escape from reality, hence the popularity of photos of unblemished humans, immaculate gardens, and so on. Even at time when many are struggling to pay their fuel bills, they buy National Lottery tickets without a chance in a million (actually much worse than that) of winning the jackpot and realising their dreams.

I think the ‘escaping from reality’ idea probably hits the nail on the head, wavechange, although it does make things more upsetting when you return to earth with a bump and realise that your own face looks nothing like those you see in images all around you.

I’m a big fan of publications that use real people and show them looking normal, although I am struggling to think of any examples now as they’re few and far between. But then I also have like people who look a bit quirky, have their own distinctive style, etc. I think what makes someone beautiful has less to do with their looks per se and more to do with how they carry themselves.

A guy I knew once summed it up nicely when he said the most attractive thing about his girlfriend was her body, and the least attractive thing about her was her tendency to moan about her body.

Kind of female-centric this one, are males not affected by these issues?

Do you mean my comment, dean? If so, definitely not – the example I used was of a girl, but this is clearly an issue for men as well. Although in the past men have generally been portrayed more realistically in the media than women, and in visual jobs are less likely to suffer from age/sex discrimination (so you see older guys presenting TV programmes more often, for example), recently there has been a huge surge in not only unrealistic images of male ‘beauty’ but a corresponding rise in the number of men shelling out for beauty treatments and surgery to try and attain this unrealistic goal.

Sorry, you’ve set me off on one =) I assume Hannah’s convo focused on women because it involved a beauty product aimed at women, but this is increasingly an issue for men as well. I don’t know if anyone has done any studies tracking the rise in ‘altered’ images of men and how this affects young boys, but I strongly suspect that a 16 year old in 2011 compared to a 16 year old in 1950 is not only more aware of the flaws in his body, but also more likely to shell out on products to enhance it.

Sophie Gilbert says:
30 July 2011

I think that drastically modifying models’ appearance such as Nikki describes (eg hairlines or proportions changed) should be banned outright because it simply goes too far.

Many, many, many more of us than we think would look stunning or very pretty or at least much more attractive if we had our hair and make up done and our outfits put together by professionals, in real life. We could perhaps go some way towards making oursleves look better, if not quite like Julia, if we bought certain products. However, we wouldn’t have a hope in he** of looking like Barbie, which is basically what doctoring the photos to such an extent does to the models.

If men were ever completely sheltered from this kind of pressure to look impossibly (impossibly being the key word) handsome, they certainly aren’t anymore.

robb192002 says:
31 July 2011

Yep, I thought that Nikki’s story neatly illustrated, its definitely an issue for men. And its most definitely my job to say that the effect of all those skin care products looks good! More than my life’s worth to say otherwise.

I think the advertisements should have to go through a process similar to the grading of films, where it is classed as suitable for different ages, only the advertisements would get a class of yes or no.

Perhaps Which? should take the example of the continental consumer organisations and have a pop at the claims made. It is noticeable that in the decades I have been subscribing there has been relatively little critical evaluation of the claims.

Why is that?

Incidentally looking at the value eau de colognes available at my Aldi I was struck at the huge costs one can pay and wondered if some blindtesting would reveal that for most people the cost is not actually a guarantee of a pleasant lasting smell.

ASA has a captive regulator of the advertising industry is a chocolate teapot and consumers would benefit from a more painful treatment of advertisers. For a sample of how to highlight bogus claims tina.org is a fine example of a consumer champion.

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