Socially Conscious Advertising Campaigns: A step forward or a new marketing strategy?

(By Claudia Tsang, on behalf of Queen’s Inquire Editorial Board)


The rapid expansion of multimedia in the past 5 to 10 years has caused the question of whether the benefit of marketing outweighs the ethics of the heavy use of Photoshop in advertising to become a familiar debate. Launched in 2004, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty marked the epoch for a social movement promoting natural and inner beauty, becoming one of the first major corporations to defy the glamorizing effects of computer generated images. By using “regular” women for campaign models, Dove’s aim is to celebrate and inspire women to have confidence in themselves, redefining what it means to be beautiful. Nine years later, Aerie’s “No Photoshop” campaign, in which the company foregoes the use of Photoshop on their models, brings into question the efficacy of such movements. Does refraining from erasing blemishes and trimming a few extra inches off a model’s waist truly inspire social radicalism, or is this merely another marketing ploy taking advantage of society’s idealistic and sentimentalist ideologies for equality and inner beauty?

Controversies surrounding the Aerie campaign include a lack of racial diversity and the choice of models, many of whom already fit into society’s ideal standard of beauty and hardly require the use of Photoshop to achieve the desirable image of “beautiful” at all. In a society so willing to join the movement against hyperrealism and the detrimental effects it has on our concepts of beauty, this is a poor effort at best.

At the same time, despite their half-hearted attempt at promoting natural beauty, this campaign once again brings to attention the continuous problem of the pressure put on women to attain unrealistic standards of beauty that media has imposed.  A recent survey conducted in November 2013 by One Poll, a British research company, showed alarming results: “15% of … 18-24 year old women surveyed believe the images of celebs and models they see in magazines accurately reflect what the models look like in reality.”  This statistic does not include those who are subconsciously and unknowingly affected. With the increased efforts in educating the populace of the effects of airbrushing and Photoshop, these numbers are not comforting.

Yet, in today’s capitalist economy where consumerism and materialism reign, it is unrealistic to expect advertising and marketing companies to forfeit the use of Photoshop. It is undeniable that as consumers, we are just simply more attracted to the aesthetically pleasing. Given the choice between the ordinary and the extraordinary, one would obviously gravitate toward the latter; it is in our natural tendencies to do so. As Sasha Grujicic, the executive vice-president and head of strategy at Aegis Media Canada, tells us, customers are only attracted because of the distance between the ordinary life and the ideal life that advertising presents to us, and our desire to bridge that distance. Women buy specific items to look like the models in the advertisements. Now this is not to dismiss the confidence that many women do possess, but we have to consider the power that digitally edited images holds over our society. Asking companies to simply give up an effective and profitable marketing technique in a highly competitive economy is impractical and unrealistic.

The problem exists within the tension between our desire for natural and inner beauty to come to the forefront and the prominence of consumerism within capitalist society. The two are antithetical. As long as capitalism stands – and this is not to argue for or against capitalism but to emphasize the inconsistency between the two concepts – marketing, advertising, and, in effect, Photoshop will continue to be in play. The argument of whether Photoshop should be used, if it is responsible for the unrealistic ideas of beauty, or if Photoshop is, at the core, good or bad, is arbitrary. In a huge industry of fashion, women, and beauty, which is situated within the grander framework of the economy, Photoshop is merely a means through which our market-based culture is perpetuated. Our dissatisfaction with the “fake” perspective that media has given us is going to continually be in battle with our economy, our market, and, at the core, our culture. This is about money making; this is life – you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

So what do I propose?

In a perfect world, we would make it a universal movement and every corporation would stop using Photoshop on their models. Models in advertisements would be “regular” and reflect the “everyday” woman. Women everywhere would be confident in their bodies, truly believe that they are beautiful, and insecurity would be a foreign concept. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world.

Despite our constant addresses to the pressure that media has placed on women everywhere to become slim, flawless, and sensual, many women still face the challenge of not being able to match up to those expectations. In the same survey conducted by One Poll, it was further discovered that 33% of women “feel [that] the body they aspire towards is not possible for them to achieve.” These figures indicate the necessity to continually promote education and awareness of the prominence of Photoshop. As the perpetual motion of the market and, consequently, the use of Photoshop remains out of our control, the responsibility falls on the masses to equip ourselves to the best of our ability to prevent ourselves from falling victim to the impossible standards of beauty that media poses.

Although the Aerie campaign may not have been sufficient in attacking the issue, nor may it have even been initiated by motives pertaining to the social desire for inner beauty, it serves as a nice reminder that true natural beauty does exist and is attainable. Even though it does not seem possible that Photoshop, airbrushing, and the glamorization of advertising will be prevented, there are the occasional initiatives, such as the one at hand, that continue to encourage and empower women. This is part of our battle, ladies. The world won’t fight our battles for us so it is up to us to remind ourselves that we are beautiful.