Airbrushing ‘bad ads’ from public life

The campaign to ban retouched images of skinny models is not only crazy – it’s deeply censorious, too.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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For many celebrities, public figures and models, the development of airbrushing techniques have been a godsend. Gone are unsightly wrinkles, stray hairs, blemishes and flabby skin. In the world of advertising and publicity shots, a bad hair day can now be transformed into a picture-perfect moment.

When, during the US presidential race last year, Newsweek published a close-up front cover picture of then Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, conservatives over at Fox News were outraged. They claimed that while Newsweek’s cover of Barack Obama had been flawless, the magazine had presented Palin in an unflattering light by not airbrushing her photograph. There was a not-so-subliminal message here, said Fox: showing Palin warts’n’all (metaphorically speaking) meant that she was denied the idealised, flattering presentation that the liberal media offered to its political favourites.

Airbrushing has become a controversial flashpoint: celebrities crave it, politicians apparently deserve it, and experts claim that it creates unrealistic images of perfection that impact on young people’s self-esteem. And so this week a group of experts has bizarrely called on the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to outlaw the use of airbrushing in ads aimed at teenagers and children.

A group of academics, doctors and psychologists has argued that airbrushed images promote unrealistic expectations of perfect body images. In a paper supported by 44 academics, and overseen by the Liberal Democrats as part of their broader campaign against the use of airbrushed or retouched images in advertisements, the group claims that these images encourage eating disorders and self-harm amongst girls in particular, but boys, too.

The idea that altered images of fit men will have insecure boys reaching for their steroid shots, or that seeing pictures of impossibly skinny women will have girls sticking two fingers down their throats, displays a rather crude understanding of how advertising affects people, and a complete disregard for the intellect and resilience of young people. Advertisements reflect ideals that are grounded in contemporary social relations, aesthetics and material needs. Such ideals cannot be airbrushed from society or negotiated through quibbling over what sort of pictures are acceptable and which are not.

The campaigners are looking for a quick fix to what they see as a damaging influence on young people’s psyches and wellbeing. And what quicker fix is there than asking the ASA to step in and Do Something. The ‘experts’ have asked the ASA to wield its censorious powers in the name of protecting the public from mental and physical breakdown.

The ASA – the UK watchdog that spends its time scouring ads and considering complaints from the public – has increasingly become the moral arbiter of public space. The watchdog sees its role as keeping public space ‘safe’ – that is, obliterating from the public sphere any images of sexy young women, violence, guns, nipples etc. Considering its track record, it is not surprising that a small group of signatories to a campaign that has not been tested out or debated amongst the public is hedging its bets on pushing through its censorship-drive via this undemocratic institution.

For instance, earlier this year the ASA banned an ad by the clothing firm American Apparel because it featured a 23-year-old female model who looked too young. The watchdog judged that if the ad was seen by people outside the 18-to-34 target age group, it could potentially cause serious offence as it ‘could be seen to sexualise a model who appeared to be a child’. Last year the ASA upheld 23 complaints over an ad for a hairstyler because the ‘eroticised images’ were likely to ‘cause serious offence, particularly to Christians’. Last winter a Ryanair ad, which showed a scantily-clad, Britney Spears-style schoolgirl next to the words ‘HOTTEST Back To School Fares’, was deemed likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’ after just 13 people complained.

The list goes on. But the red thread that runs through the ASA’s decisions is its justification of censorship in moralistic and prudish terms and in the name of avoiding offence. And so, if a bunch of experts can put their case convincingly to the moral custodians of the ASA, then they have a far greater chance of obliterating altered images from advertising billboards than they would if they tried to win public support for their cause.

This bizarre campaign shows up the futility of censorship as a means of fixing social problems (or alleged social problems). The experts believe that ‘media images that depict ultra-thin, digitally altered women models are linked to body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating in girls and women’. Such images can apparently cause ‘unhealthy dieting regimes and problematic eating behaviours (starving, bingeing, and purging), clinical eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia), cosmetic surgery and extreme exercising’.

No doubt there are many girls who take drastic measures to alter their looks, but it is ludicrous to suggest that advertising can be held singularly responsible for everything from dietary choices to exercise habits and women’s decisions to undergo cosmetic surgery. Being concerned about your looks is simply part of growing up. Yet the experts both vastly overstate how many young girls and boys are depressed about their physiques, and also vastly overstate the negative influence advertising has on young people. The fact that most – if not all – young people know that advertisers try to sell not just products but lifestyles and ideals means that they are not likely to be as naive about advertising images as these experts suggest.

To the extent that some young people do have issues with their body image, then perhaps the experts should peel their eyes away from glossy magazines and billboards for a minute and consider what effects the hectoring ‘War on Fat’ might be having on kids. The UK government campaign against obesity has done more to demonise chubbiness than any advertising drive ever could. These days we have lunchbox inspections and routine weighing of schoolkids. Headmasters are writing letters to parents whose children’s body mass index (BMI) is above the ‘acceptable’ level and councils are closing down fast food shops near schools. Parents have been urged to stop referring to their kids’ chubbiness as ‘puppy fat’ and instead to accept that they are obese and headed for heart failure unless they adopt a healthy diet.

Talk about screwing up kids’ minds and encouraging an unhealthy relationship to food and exercise…

It is true that, today, chubbiness is demonised and slimness is celebrated. But the misguided Lib Dem-supported campaign against airbrushing does not have a fat chance of changing that, because it is focusing on the wrong thing. Instead, if successful, the anti-airbrushing campaign will severely slim down free expression in the world of advertising and reinforce the idea that – young or old – we are all dupes and suckers who fall for the exaggerated images projected by admen.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild attacked the ASA for censoring an ad in which the female model looked too young. She also looked at London Underground’s ban on posters for the play Fat Christ. Brendan O’Neill revealed the prudishness of the Advertising Standards Authority and explained why advertising is a free-speech issue. Alex Hochuli warned of the dangers of the tyranny of the individual. Duleep Allirajah criticised the media reaction to a football celebration that no one complained about. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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