The Very Famous Pop Diva insisted that her magazine headshots were absolutely not retouched. That straight white smile? Hers. That luminous skin? Hers. The big beautiful eyes? Hers, all hers, the singer declared, maintaining her Photoshop innocence with the indignity once reserved for chaste women accused of wanton living.
Sitting at home on her couch, Helene DeLillo laughed out loud when she happened across this diva’s protestations on television. A master retoucher and Adobe-recognized guru, DeLillo knows what agents, publicists and agencies so often hide from the talent in order to protect egos and plausible deniability in the culture wars over increasingly aggressive digital post-production.
“There’s always something to fix—always, always” says DeLillo, who fixed the singer’s photos by filling in a chipped tooth, spot erasing her blemishes and extending her eyelashes. “Every single company is retouching, even if they say they’re not,” she says.
The digital fairy dust has fallen so thick yet so imperceptibly since Photoshop was created in 1990 that even celebrities themselves may not realize when the magic wand is working on their behalf—not to mention the clone tool, the healing brush and Liquify, the shape-shifting mother of digital enchantment, introduced in 2000, that morphs objects as easy as pulling taffy. Today, fashion models who appear gaunt can get their pixels plumped to fill in bony joints and jutting ribs. Celebrities, meanwhile, routinely get slimmed down to look more like models.
After a decade of deafening criticism, capped by the American Medical Association condemning unrealistically retouched models as a public health hazard in 2011, digital doctoring may be entering a new age of regulation. In a pivotal decision, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus late last year found that a CoverGirl mascara ad featuring singer Taylor Swift was not “truthful and accurate” because her luxurious eyelashes were enhanced with airbrushing. The finding represents “potentially a sea change,” says Terri Seligman, an advertising and marketing lawyer with Frankfurt Kurnit. “It appears there will be a great deal more scrutiny of image.”
The landmark case began with another Photoshop guffaw, as NAD director Andrea Levine describes her reaction while thumbing through a copy of People magazine during a routine review. It wasn’t the pretty woman in the ad that caught her attention, though. “It didn’t matter to me if she was a known actress or model,” says Levine. “You don’t want to tarnish her. She was just called in to take a photo.” The problem was with what the NAD head saw below the photo, as she leaned in to read the fine print that stated: “Lashes enhanced in post production.”
“It was so over the top that I just burst out laughing,” she says. “[The picture] is a product demonstration. The product is mascara. Mascara should make your eyelashes longer and thicker. When you take a picture, you can’t enhance it.”
Procter & Gamble executives were perhaps justifiably surprised when the NAD opened an initial inquiry. “Retouching is standard, and post-production is standard across all advertising,” says Brent Miller, CoverGirl spokesman. “Everyone does it.”
That used to be the case anyway. The company quickly pulled the ad in a voluntary move that the NAD praised.
Why the regulatory crackdown now? Multiple factors include escalating product claims, increasingly manipulated media images, more scrutiny among watchdog groups and mounting political backlash. As Levine explains it, P&G’s disclaimer combined the red-flag-waving nerve of labeling its faked photo with a pitch stressing that its mascara was “20% lighter” and adds “2x more volume.”
“It depends on the claim that goes with the photo,” says Levine, calling the CoverGirl ad “garden-variety misleading. When you tell me in the ad you’ve tinkered with the demonstration, then I feel compelled to do something.”