Banning ads the answer to image obsession?

Recently, L’Oreal has had their UK ads, featuring highly airbrushed images of Julia Roberts, banned from being used in the UK (The Age also had an Australian perpective article, here). While I completely understand what the regulators are trying to counter – an obsession with youthful perfection at the expense of reality, which, many contend, has contributed to poor body image, increasing cosmetic surgery, the list goes on. As someone who grew up facing an endless barrage of these airbrushed images, I understand first hand what they are trying to stop. But is this the way to do it?

Many other companies have and will continue to produce highly airbrushed images for the advertising campaigns, in the UK and all around the rest of the world. Unless you ban airbrushing all together (and how the hell are you going to even begin to try to enforce that?!) ultimately, you’re making subjective decisions about how much is too much airbrushing. And who makes those decisions? The same problems with any kind of censorship – who decides, and how do they decide? And, more fundamentally, does this censorship achieve what those who censor are aiming to achieve?

I would argue that censoring airbrushed ads is counter-productive. Yes, advertisers are in part responding to what people want, and also setting an ideal in people’s minds about what is desirable (that which they advertise becomes desirable because they say so). But I think, in discussing censorship of ads, those arguments become background. Without advertisers telling us so, there are many many other pressures for people to look young, and perfect. And advertising is one part of that.

Unless we can move towards addressing the causes of what we value – youth, perfection, etc., then banning ads is just a bandaid over the huge, ingrained social issue. It is bigger than just advertising and simply blaming advertisers and ignoring the rest of the dynamic of the issue won’t achieve anything. Further, perhaps allowing this ad campaign to run would have left L’Oreal looking stupid. As the regulator says, the ads are obviously airbrushed. Companies can’t sell cosmetics which look to be promising more than they deliver – maybe consumers would have called the company’s bluff in this instance.

Instead of censoring advertisers, lets talk about why they might be motivated to deliver a campaign with a scary-perfect image of Julia Roberts in the first place.

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One response to “Banning ads the answer to image obsession?

  • L.K. Giesen (@theriverfed)

    Obviously censorship is never going to be the answer, but I agree with the ban in this case. I think it is important to note, despite headlines, that the ads were banned not for being airbrushed but for being misleading.

    The ads were for foundation, which people presumably wear to even out their complexion etc. When the complexion shown is entirely airbrushed it is obviously not a true representation of what the product is or can do. That has nothing to do with beauty or body image. It is a standard which applies across the board for all kinds of products and I don’t think it is one many people find controversial.

    If those pictures were for, say, a hair product the airbrushing would not have been relevant and there would have been no ban. If, anything, I’d say the beauty industry has probably not been held to account enough on meeting these minimum standards of honesty in advertising so I’d say this case resulted in an appropriate decision.

    I don’t think anyone is overreaching or overreacting.

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