Retouched Julia Roberts Ad Ban: Necessary?

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Julia Roberts, as she appears in real lift, and, at right, in a retouched L'Oreal ad. Image courtesy of Gawker

Even in the world of high fashion advertisement, it seems there is such a thing as too perfect.

The Advertising Standards Authority, a British consumer watchdog organization, filed a complaint against L'Oreal, one of the largest cosmetics companies in the world. It seems that their advertisements, featuring close-up photos of models, are too perfect to be true and were banned.

According to a New York Times blog, "The ads in question featured the actress Julia Roberts and the supermodel Christy Turlington. Ms. Roberts's ad was for a Lancôme brand foundation called Teint Miracle. Ms. Turlington's ad, for a Maybelline brand foundation called the Eraser, showed parts of her face covered by the makeup as having fewer wrinkles in contrast to the parts of her face that were not covered."

There seems to be two different facets to the complaint. The first is basically a false advertising issue: that the photographs do not accurately represent results that the average woman can expect from using the product.

Who hasn't seen countless ads and commercials for dieting and weight loss products that show stunningly different "before" and "after" photos? The "before" ads are unflattering and poorly posed, while the "after" are professional, well-lit, and glamorous.

Even if the person hasn't lost an ounce of weight, photography can make it look like he or she has dropped pounds — even without retouching. Are such images misleading? Almost certainly. Are they illegal? According to the Advertising Standards Authority, possibly.

L'Oreal acknowledged that the photographs of Roberts and Turlington were professionally created and retouched, but argued that the images accurately depicted the results that could be expected from using the products.

Maybelline issued a statement that read, in part, "Even though the ad features an obviously illustrated effect, some lines are still clearly visible beneath the illustration and we do not believe that the ad exaggerates the effect that can be achieved using this product."

The second issue is less concerned with false advertising than with the social and cultural effects of advertising in general, especially on women.

The effort to ban airbrushed advertisements and images has been championed by several British Members of Parliament, including British Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, who said that "Pictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they don't reflect reality….Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts are naturally beautiful women who don't need retouching to look great. This ban sends a powerful message to advertisers: let's get back to reality."

It's not clear what Swinson means by "reflecting reality" and "getting back to reality." Some people do have flawless skin; some people (like Kate Middleton, and countless fashion models and actresses, as well as ordinary women) do have "super slim" bodies. These people are clearly part of "reality."

What Swinson presumably means is that these idealized images do not reflect the average person, or the majority of people. This is true — most people do not have perfect skin, and most people are not model-thin.

But it's not clear why Swinson would assume that advertisements or entertainment should reflect reality, or mirror the general public. People read magazines and consume entertainment to escape reality.

For example, most television dramas involve police officers, lawyers, and doctors, yet most people are neither police nor lawyers, nor doctors; those programs do not accurately reflect reality, nor their audiences.

The reason models are chosen to promote products is that they are, by definition, more attractive than average. Thus Swinson's complaint that models don't look like the average woman is at once both obvious and nonsensical. Of course they don't; why would advertisers hire ugly or average-looking models to promote their products?

Swinson's argument also seems to contain the assumption that women are not smart (or media savvy) enough to know that the images they see on television are artificial and unrealistic. In fact, research has shown that young women are not fooled by airbrushed images, and are well aware that what they see in fashion magazines is artificial and unachievable.

Consumer protection is important, but it seems unlikely that most women really believe that they will look like Julia Roberts if they buy a certain makeup, or be fooled into thinking that the images they see in magazines and on television reflect reality.

Thankfully, women are smarter than advertisers (or politicians) give them credit for.

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