When a newspaper writer decides that we probably need some legislation to make some common practice illegal, we really ought to fire back. The responsibility in issues like this is complex – it’s not just the advertisers, editors or photographers. It’s also the companies and consumers that need to step up. I have bitched for YEARS about consumer responsibility instead of legislation, and this one hits very close to home for me.
There is a very good point to be made about adolescents viewing ads that depict an impossible or unhealthy body image – they are impressionable. This is why cigarette companies are forbidden to advertise on TV in the United States. Which then lead to smoking essentially being banned from TV for a while. Alcohol ads are likewise prohibited from showing someone actually taking a drink of the beverage they are promoting. I’m not sure how this cognitive separation is supposed to work – are we to purchase the alcohol but not consume it?
Anyway, I understand that people with self-esteem problems face very difficult choices when they are inundated with media that tells them they can (and should) be prettier, happier and in general better than they are, if only they would buy Product X. All of us are subject to this at some point in the first world, and most of us at some point, consciously or not, have given in to certain purchasing decisions that are not entirely based on research, reason or even actual thought. We buy stuff that appeals to us at whatever level.
But here’s the really evil thing; advertisers give us what they think we want. We as consumers went hand-in-hand with advertisers down the road of impossible wishes and now we want to blame advertisers for trying to exploit our insecurities. It doesn’t matter how much information you give someone, they can be swayed by the primal need to be ‘better’ if only someone would imply that it’s possible. Somewhere in our brains is the thought “thin is good, but thinner is better”. Why? Because we’ve given in to the notion, not because we believe advertisers are right.
What does this have to do with image manipulation? Well, advertisers have gotten pretty damn far off course, and there are tons of examples of people trying to falsify information in images one way or another. Hell, I coauthored a book on how to do it realistically. But there are two sides to the ethics here: truth in advertising and personal responsibility. We need both, but more of the latter.
I do think it should be a criminal offense to manipulate *any* data on which business or legal decisions are made. In fact, I believe it already is. We also have laws that are supposed to keep advertisers in line about truthfulness, but that’s a really grey area. After all, how do you determine if it’s untruthful when a fashion company shows a hot model nicely filling out the latest threads? And so what if they enhance this or reduce that? Is someone out there really thinking they will be just as hot simply by purchasing the same outfit? What about diet and fitness center ads? Should they show every member’s before and after shots? Or how about a statistical representation?
How about major motion pictures? Perhaps they should be banned from using good-looking actors with talent because we simply can’t measure up and that hurts. I mean, they use all kinds of tools to create a particular look, the actors may have to maintain some kind of diet and exercise regime, and then there’s the flattering lights and camera angles. For that matter, let’s just ban pretty people. Then we’ll ban the talented, intelligent, and somewhat-more-amusing-than-us. Majority rules, after all, and by definition we average folks are the majority. So we should get rid of the ugly, stupid and annoying too (no, wait… then we’d have nobody to make us feel better about ourselves).
Ok, so back to using Photoshop to manipulate images. The author of that NYT article is focusing on ads that give young women impossible-to-meet body images. And that is supposed to be justification for labeling or banning digital image manipulation. Nothing is said of our responsibility as a society to CHANGE THAT IMAGE if we don’t like it. But, now read this carefully, we are still buying it. We KNOW it’s impossible and unhealthy, and yet we continue to spend money. Then we want to punish those who provide temptation. After that, we will punish those who provide the tools to provide the temptation. Then we will most likely punish those who talked about the tools that were used to provide temptation. Thoughtcrime, folks. And I’m not exaggerating. You try making a bomb joke in an airport and see how everyone laughs.
What’s the solution? If we make it unprofitable, it will go away. That means you and I have to make an effort to choose companies with responsible advertising and business practices, and an even bigger effort to teach our children. It doesn’t take a freaking village, it takes responsible adults making good decisions.