Before long, though, celebrity retouching scandals would pick up steam—from actress Kate Winslet’s slimmed thighs to Katie Couric’s thinned torso to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s purportedly censored cleavage. With budget-cutting and high demand for Web images, retouching ran amok. In a low point, the website Photoshop Disasters (psdisasters.com) posted a Ralph Lauren ad showing model Filippa Hamilton looking like a bobble-headed Bratz doll with rubbery arms and a head larger than her pelvis, which is, of course, anatomically impossible.
“People always knew these images were manipulated, but I don’t think they knew how really bad it was,” says Vernon, who runs the website and who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation. Vernon says he is still chastened by a cease-and-desist order from Ralph Lauren’s lawyers that led his site’s administrator to remove the image. Still, other blogs picked it up, posting the picture worldwide and adding the expected snark and derision. Ultimately, Ralph Lauren executives admitted to the “poorly imaged photos,” promising improved internal controls. “It was totally a mistake,” says corporate communications senior director Ryan J. Lally. “We rectified it. We did not run from it. It’s a closed issue.”
Not quite. As everyone knows by now, everything lives forever on the Internet. The American Medical Association might well have been thinking of the now-infamous Ralph Lauren image in its groundbreaking call for advertisers to limit body morphing, citing research linking unrealistic body images to mental and eating disorders, especially among youths. The AMA sent a letter to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, urging the industry to consult with health professionals to create appropriate advertising guidelines. Declining to comment directly, 4A’s president and CEO Nancy Hill issued a written statement, referring to the association’s history of supporting responsible advertising, specifically mentioning the Ad Council’s work with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative targeting childhood obesity.
But while fighting fat may be popular, combatting digitally enforced dieting seems too hot to handle. Agencies such as Gotham and McCann-Erickson, which were named in recent retouched-ad bans in the U.K., would not comment. “That’s pathetic,” says Tim Piper, the filmmaker and former Ogilvy Toronto writer/director who co-created the award-winning Dove Evolution time-lapse spot exposing how Photoshop works. “People in the industry don’t want to hear that it’s bad, but they know it is.”
The bottom line is that airbrushed images can sell products, according to Karen Grant, senior global beauty analyst at the research firm NPD. She notes that highly polished cosmetics ads may be driving growth in new categories of makeup and skin care products that claim to improve skin tone, texture, spots and radiance—all surface facial features buffed by standard retouching. “Yes, I think there’s a correlation,” she says. “Is there hard data to prove it? Absolutely not.”
But the soft evidence is compelling. Ten to 15 years ago, beauty products did not promise a flawless finish, and women were not as conscious of having their skin glow or radiate. “The consumer doesn’t know this is a Photoshop look,” says Grant. “They look in a magazine and say, ‘That’s beautiful—I want to look like that.’”
With women buying makeup to attain that Photoshop finish, public attitudes are nuanced, if not ambivalent. For example, a grassroots petition allied with the National Eating Disorders Association calling for federal retouching labeling laws has so far collected only 2,225 signatures.
“We are surprised that we have not seen more support,” says Seth Matlins, a former marketing agent at Creative Artists Agency who launched a truth-in-airbrushing push along with a positive-message apparel company and a magazine, Off Our Chests.
The fact is, consumers are now even airbrushing at home, as confirmed by a Glamour survey in which 60 percent of 1,000 women polled had no problem with retouching personal photos that might appear on Facebook or online dating sites. “It’s not just a media practice anymore,” says Glamour executive editor Wendy Naugle. “Women are now doing this, and men too.”
In results that surprised Glamour editors, 75 percent of women said they did not mind magazines and advertisers erasing minor blemishes, deleting stray hairs and smoothing wrinkles in clothing. But women did draw the line at body morphing, with only 22 percent approving the digitally slimming away of even five pounds.
The issue cuts close to home for Glamour, seeing as the Photoshop Disasters blog accused the magazine of erasing actress Kristen Stewart’s arm on its cover. Absolutely denying that happened, Glamour editors pointed to its history of publishing diverse images, including news-making photos of plus-size model Lizzie Miller showing her unretouched belly.
With so many magazines facing criticism for heavy post-production—including Vogue’s dramatically revamped cover shot of Adele and Redbook’s slenderized Faith Hill—Glamour took a stand this past March, promising to be more forceful in controlling retouching, including “asking photographers we hire not to manipulate a woman’s shape in the photos we commission, even if a celebrity or model requests a digital diet (alas, it happens).”
Will celebrities willingly go it natural? How about average folk retouching at home? Or women in real-life? Not likely. “People need a reality check,” says NPD’s Grant. “Everyone wants to look natural, but women recognize that it takes a lot of products to look completely natural.”