Can we handle ‘truth’ in advertising?

Aug 27, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Consensus Advisors, a boutique investment and advisory firm specializing in the retail industry.

Think of the things you’ve seen in ads. Invariably, in the real world, the Big Mac is smaller, the Lite beer makes you heavier and the Slim Fast is too slow. And then there are the people in the ads — sometimes they don’t resemble actual humans at all.

What is presented is extensively touched and retouched, smoothed and brightened, softened and, in the case of the models, thinned and bemuscled, recolored and deblemished. What we see isn’t what exists, but we have learned, very early on, to complete the picture so it makes sense, even if it makes us feel terrible about how fat and unbemuscled, ill-colored and blemished reality is.

In response to the pervasive and occasionally egregious use of digital picture editors (to Adobe’s dismay, generically called "photoshopping"), a group called the Brave Girls Alliance (BGA) has helped introduce (with bipartisan sponsorship), the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, which calls on the Federal Trade Commission to develop a legislative framework for any advertising that materially alters the bodies of the models portrayed. In advance of a legal solution, the BGA has challenged retailers to sign a pledge to provide more truth in their advertising — at least when it comes to the people wearing, holding or standing next to their products.

It seems it would take a very cynical company to ignore the evidence of the damage that our tinkering with reality has been doing. But the pledge has met with resistance. After all, the ads look so good! No retailer has signed up, until now.

ModCloth, an online retailer with a "vast, yet carefully curated collection of over 7,500 designs from over 1,200 designers, as well as a growing private label business," is first retailer to sign the anti-photoshop pledge.

It’s a small victory (ModCloth isn’t Macy’s), but it’s a big story nonetheless. The field is wide open for retailers to garner goodwill from their customers, and possibly do some good at the same time — and all before Congress tells them they have to anyway.

Pictures done to the new standard may look a little duller and rougher, or to put it another way, realer. Still, if 80 percent of women currently feel "shame" after reading a beauty magazine, something about the general perception of what is normal is wrong.

Even after thinking about this issue, I’m not sure I know what real truth in advertising will look like. What I hope is that I’ll be able to see it when I see it.

Do you applaud ModCloth for signing the anti-photoshop pledge? Will major retailers follow?

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17 Comments on "Can we handle ‘truth’ in advertising?"

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Chris Petersen, PhD.

ModCloth has been a real innovator and disruptor in many ways. So it is not surprising that they are first to sign the anti-Photoshop pledge. There is positioning value in being first. Kudos to ModCloth.

The interesting dilemma is to define what is “truth.” Most have seen a YouTube video on what is possible with the powers of Photoshop. But you can also make a person appear 25 pounds lighter by how you use lights in the studio. Will “truth” also have to include definitions of lighting, and all of the other photography tricks used to make products and models look more glamorous?

Ron Margulis

I was going to create an app that could tell if an ad has Photoshopped images, but I bet it’s already been developed. Transparency in advertising is here in many retail sectors (automotive, electronics, etc.) and is coming in food and fashion. Retailers should be proactive about it or risk having it pushed on them.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Major retailers have a responsibility to sell stuff. If a hot-looking (or impossibly hot-looking) model sells more stuff, use it. If an everyday person sells more stuff, use it. Dove found the latter approach useful. You go with what works—this is business.

David Livingston
3 years 25 days ago

I doubt major retailers would follow because they are too reliant on people and things looking good. I’ve never heard of ModCloth, so my guess is they just did this so people like me will check them out. IMO even if every single woman on the planet was gorgeous 80 percent would still feel shame after reading a beauty magazine. Those magazines are like car wrecks. They might make you feel bad after looking but you had to look anyway. What would be nice is if people who go on dating sites would post pictures of themselves that actually represent what they really look like.

Al McClain
Al McClain
3 years 25 days ago

Can’t see advertisers and retailers ever wanting to show us how models, celebrities, and “egad” we really look. All you have to do is Google “celebrities without make up” to see the unvarnished truth. It ain’t pretty and we don’t want to see that. Consumers want to fantasize about how they could look, even though they know it isn’t possible, even for celebrities and models. We get enough of how real life looks in our real lives.

Tom Redd
It is about time to bring some reality into this real-time world. With the Mad Men series, most of America know that advertising is not always an honest spin on a product or service. Heck, if there is a show on TV about something then you know it is TRUE! Right? What I see as a huge advantage is getting across the reality of ads that relate to self-improvement and kids, and to make sure some ad styles are not around kids 13 or younger. Some ads SELL concepts that your live will CHANGE with certain material items or with SELECT foods or pills. Americans fall for these ads all the time—be it clothes, pills, food or cars. They overspend, get in debt, and some require government support because they get sick or go broke. With kids there is already too much promo and other media that is making them feel like they need to grow up faster or do what adults do, and ignore their age/maturity level. Even some of the TV shows are on a bit early and are seen by kids. Parents need to deal with this challenge. Advertising and retailers can only do so much. Last,… Read more »
Tony Orlando

Oh no, you mean my Big Mac doesn’t look like it does on TV? This pledge is fine for those who want REAL in their commercials, and good for them. I don’t see a lot of ad agencies jumping up and down over this, as the TV images of fabulous burgers and beautiful women pushing a product will not go away soon. Not much to add to this, but have at it, and lets see the results of the commercials.

Liz Crawford

Fantastic! The digitally-enhanced images are especially hard on young girls, but they negatively impact the self esteem of women too.

Why does this matter? These enhanced photos artificially skew our mental frame of reference to an impossible standard. We come out the losers. The result: eating disorders, self-loathing, defeatism. These shadowy, destructive forces aren’t really talked about much. Instead, they creep around the edges of our sense of self, manifesting in a hundred sad ways.

Look at the celebrities of decades past and you see yellowing teeth, wrinkled foreheads, thinning hair. These stars of yesteryear haven’t had plastic surgery, and they haven’t been enhanced. Instead, they are really human. Let’s embrace that.

Bill Davis

Sure, but it’s a business decision for them and it gets them some press that others aren’t getting (yet). Highly doubtful even a small minority will follow suit in the near term, unfortunately, but maybe its sowing the seeds for change to come in a few years.

When efforts like this succeed, they always take time.

Ian Percy

If I’m reading the responses right, the common conclusion is that the end justifies the means. Collateral damage is just part of doing business. Seems to me that photoshopping is the least of the issues. What about truth in what is said or written?

In court you pledge to “tell the WHOLE truth and NOTHING BUT the truth.” Imagine that being applied to advertising! What is the WHOLE truth about the food we’re eating for example? The WHOLE truth about pesticides? The WHOLE truth about government lobbying? The list could go on forever. What would you like to know the WHOLE truth about?

The pharmaceutical industry was finally made to declare the whole truth about their drugs resulting in half the commercials warning us about impending death if we take the stuff. Can you imagine that standard applying everywhere?

Ralph Jacobson

With the growing popularity of unrealistic-looking people on “reality” shows, such as all the “Housewives”, “The Bachelor” and innumerable other programs, I believe the majority of consumers will continue to like to see someone other than the overweight, less-than-perfect face truth of how humans typically appear. Consumers want to see perfection.

And, by the way, “reality show.” Even that term has little truth in advertising in it.

Cathy Hotka

Remember when a certain canned soup manufacturer got popped for displaying pictures of bowls of soup teeming with noodles, instead of broth?

There’s probably no real fix for this issue, except for consumers adopting a healthy skepticism about whether products work or look as advertised. A few years ago Estee Lauder had a 24-year-old as the face of its wrinkle cream. Enough said.

David Lubert
David Lubert
3 years 25 days ago

Yes I applaud them! Do I think major retailers will follow? No, not unless they are called out by shoppers!

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 25 days ago

Advertising is about selling the ideal, not presenting reality. If we forsake the ideal, then what do we aspire to?

That there are so many women who have such low self-esteem that perusing a fashion magazine causes them harm befuddles me. Self-worth is not and has never been about outer beauty.

Maybe if there were more publications about women’s accomplishments and fewer about fashion and beauty tips, more women would focus on what they have to contribute rather than their looks.

However, I bet they would be laced with fashion and cosmetic ads.

Craig Sundstrom

“Unbemuscled” (or even “bemuscled”)? If nothing else, I—and apparently spell check as well—learned a new word today. But back on point, this strikes me as either naive if they’re serious, or cynical if they aren’t. I hardly think presenting an idealized image of something constitutes fraud. Joan Crawford once said something to the effect that people didn’t go to movies to see a bunch of slobs, and I think the sentiment can be applied to print ads as well. Let’s move on to something actually important.

gordon arnold

If truth in advertising were the normal practice the investment banks, cosmetic industry and of course health care would be the first to go and long gone by now. So it is safe to say that advertising of any kind is designed to embellish a product or service’s characteristics and create a stimulated interest that will lead to one or more sales. Truth is nowhere in the message for success.

Today’s laws are well scripted to demonstrate that truth is more a matter of perception and or general knowledge than factual and accurate content. Anything else is game over for a big part of the remaining “taxable” corporations/businesses. In short, it’s never what you say, but how you say it.

Kai Clarke

No. Advertising is about presenting the best perspective of a product or service. How this is created is not important, only that the user understands the value the product or service offers.


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