Monday, 23 August 2010

Airbrushing and advertising

The last few months have seen the issue of airbrushing and image retouching rarely out of the news, following calls from Lib Dem politicians Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone to add health warning labels to airbrushed images aimed at children, and the launch of their Campaign for Body Confidence ( Debenhams have led the way, ( in introducing non-airbrused images of models, and we are now waiting to see whether other brands will follow suit.

Image re-touching is used in my industry all the time – making the sky bluer, making the grass greener. However, we now uniformly airbrush images of people to make them fit a beauty ideal that increasingly fails to reflect reality. The result is that airbrushed imagery is now so ingrained in our collective consciousness, we no longer see them as ‘not real’ and accept re-touched photos as presenting reality.

The politians’ argument is that the use of unrealistic and idealised images of a caucasian, skinny beauty-type is causing harm and distress for young people, who are growing up surrounded by unrealistic representations of men and women’s bodies. They argue that the advertising industry need to take responsibility for the imagery we use, and that we need to produce images offering a wide range of body types, ethnicities and appearance, as opposed to a single, homogenized ideal.

In turn, the media industries have argued that customers and potential customers respond better to images of slim women and thin, muscular men, and that we need to use these images because they are what people want to see. However, studies from UWE’s Centre of Appearance Research ( debunk this claim. They argue that so long as the model used in advertising and media imagery is attractive, the customer will still respond positively whether the model is slim or not. This was tested by measuring responses to images of the same model, some airbrushed to look like a size 8, and other images of her own size 14 figure. Therefore the idea that we need to use one type of model in order to gurantee a positive customer response does not hold water.
If the government do introduce new regulations to the way we approach image retouching of models, it could revolutionise the way men and women are portrayed in the media and in advertising. Already, Debenhams have exposed the amount of airbrushing that each image receives, and are arguing that ‘not only does it make sense from a moral point of view, it ticks the economic boxes as well,’ by saving time and money on needless retouching.

The research suggests that using skinny or average sized models doesn’t effect customer response. We know that this change could save us money. And, perhaps most pressingly of all, the evidence is persuasive that ending our culture of airbrushing could have a very real and positive impact on the self esteem of young men and women.

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