Beauty and Truth in Makeup Ads

04 Aug

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." -John Keats

Last week, the Advertising Standards Agency (UK) banned two ads for foundations by L'Oreal. One was for their Maybelline brand, featuring Christie Turlington and the other was for their Lancome brand featuring Julia Roberts. British MP Jo Swinson launched the complaint, saying that the ads were too airbrushed. The ads were banned because L'Oreal could not provide the "before" pictures to show that the airbrushing wasn't excessive and to prove what the cosmetics do.

According to The Guardian, the "before" pictures of Roberts could not be shown "due to contractual agreements with the actor":

"On the basis of the evidence we had received we could not conclude that the ad image accurately illustrated what effect the product could achieve, and that the image had not been exaggerated by digital post-production techniques," the ASA said. (The Guardian)

The case (and the surrounding media coverage) highlight the tensions between government, regulatory bodies and business. If the product in question is foundation, make up worn by women to cover blemishes, lines, wrinkles and more, is it unreasonable to expect an accurate picture of what the product can do? Or, should (as much of the coverage suggests) consumers just know better. Is a false claim really damaging if everyone knows it's false?  L'Oreal defended its ad, saying that the airbrushing was "not "directly relevant" and that the ad was an "aspirational picture" (The Guardian). 

In several of the headlines (and certainly the comments) on this story, the issue was reduced to is Julia Roberts "too beautiful?" (or some version on the theme). However, the ASA's ruling had nothing to do with aspirational images or the beauty of Julia Roberts. It had to do with the fact that the product is supposed to achieve specific results. One must then question, if those results were achieved, why was further airbrushing needed? If the ad was an accurate portrayal of the product's effect on these women's skin, then surely the extra effects wouldn't be necessary. Of course, there is another point of view, summarized in the Entertainment Weekly PopWatch story:

Sharon A. Blinkoff, an attorney with Venable LLP...tells EW it’s unlikely that the U.S.’s Federal Trade Commission would have taken the same stance against the ads. “Under U.S. law, the question becomes whether a consumer acting reasonably would be in some way misled and believe that the product would do things that it doesn’t in fact do...[break] Even the lighting that you use when you take a photo of a model will sometimes change the appearance. Are we now gonna say everybody has to be put under standard lighting, so that we make sure that there’s no deviation? Instead of having beauty shots, we’ll have mug shots..."

Is asking for an accurate representation of the effect of a foundation the same as eliminating beauty shots and just having mug shots? The justification of this "aspirational picture" (described in several publications) is that consumers are too savvy to believe that it is real. Leaving aside the MP's concern that the images are harmful because they portray an unrealistic ideal that contributes to a negative body image in the general public, the ads themselves were found to be dishonest. If a company is going to claim that a product achieves a specific result, shouldn't it be the product that achieves that result and not the airbrush?

This story is a great opportunity to explore some key concepts of media literacy. For example:

7. The media contain social and political messages: L'Oreal defended the ad saying that it was an "aspirational" picture. To what are women supposed to aspire? Who is included and who is excluded from this aspiration?

(I could mention more, but these questions are a good starting point for classroom discussion.)

Additional Links:

L'Oreal's Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington ad campaigns banned. The Guardian.

Digitally enhanced Julia Roberts, Christy Turlington ads banned in Britain. LA Times.

L'Oreal ads featuring flawless Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington banned in UK. Entertainment Weekly.

ASA Adjudication on L'Oreal (UK) Ltd. Advertising Standards Authority.

Touchy Subject: UK bans Roberts ad over airbrushing. MSNBC.