Will ‘Seventeen’ Magazine Keep It Real?

Seventeen magazine has a compelling dilemma on its hands as the brand, which sells the dreams of pop culture to teenagers, is being asked by that same demographic to embrace reality.

Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old resident of Waterville, ME, petitioned Seventeen magazine to feature girls as how they really appear and not doctor images by airbrushing out natural blemishes such as acne. Bluhm used social media to raise awareness and garnered 85,000 signatures for her petition on Change.org.

After much media coverage and social media buzz, Bluhm got a sit-down with Seventeen EIC Ann Shoket and a promise through the magazine’s “Body Peace Treaty” to “always feature real girls and models who are healthy.”

Industry experts extol the virtue of brands listening to their customers. Seventeen occupies a unique position, with its target female teen audience. And it markets a youthful version of glamour. The prevailing cultural norm dictates that flaws are anything but glamorous.

Many readers perceive airbrushing and the other tinkering in glossy magazine photos as dishonest, creating a standard that no woman of any age could possibly live up to. Others see it as nothing more than modern marketing, which leverages savvy content and hyperbolized campaigns to sell a product. Though many consumers believe that Seventeen magazine, and the media in general, has a moral obligation not to seek profits by exploiting or manipulating the vulnerabilities of younger demographics, the magazine’s fate resides in the hands of those same consumers.

But Seventeen magazine has a unique opportunity here to do something original, cutting edge, and profound. What if the magazine’s latest steps breed a level of honesty about the myriad versions of female beauty that gets passed on to its young readers? We’re already seeing magazines and brands take baby steps in this direction: Dove has its wildly successful “Real Beauty” campaign and People‘s Most Beautiful issue featured a number of women au naturel. In the U.K., a set of rules about how much airbrushing can be done has forced a marketing about-face for big brands like Lancôme.

Publishing is a tough business. There is one metric that separates publishing life from publishing death: sales. Inevitably the real world prevails, warts and all.

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