It all starts with the eye lashes. The cover girl in the ad of the new mascara that advertises a “x00% boost in volume” looks stunning. But in the bottom right corner of the page there’s a barely readable 5pt white-on-grey-background sentence: “Lashes are digitally enhanced.” All of a sudden the stunning looks of the model aren’t so stunning at all. They’re fake.
Illusions with Photoshop are nothing new in advertising. I’ve transplanted heads, feet, hands and nails, elongated bodies, smoothed skin, erased bags under eyes, mirrored eyebrows and eyes for the sake of symmetry, done numerous boob jobs without ever entering med school, enhanced, decreased and polished many body parts in my short life as a designer. The mighty sword of Photoshop is quickly drawn when there’s a wrinkle too much. What’s new is that the perception of those mask-like illusions are challenged in public.
In 2009, France passed a law that, while it doesn’t forbid the use of digitally manipulated pictures in advertising, it states that they clearly have to be marked as being altered. Quite a few studies about the influence of those flawless images on the self-esteem of consumers exist, and they don’t draw positive conclusions. Discussions on blogs and forums broach the issue of “real” and “fake” images. Cover photos of CDs, especially if the singer’s a little older, betray the reality. When my sister was working on a comeback album of an aged German pop singer whose golden time was back in the 80s, the featured artwork was so polished that she admitted it bearing no resemblance at all to the singer. She could barely recognize her. “Don’t trust pictures,” I told her, “there’s a tool for every asperity of the human body in Photoshop.”
On the other hand, there’s the world of fashion photography, that rarely aspires to show the reality. They use camera angles and lighting to distort or to show unusual scenes we never might have seen that way. Who knows, the model may have had a stomach cramp for repeatedly holding an awkward pose that – in the finished picture and enhanced by angle and light – looks stunning and gives the impression of a wasp waist. General prejudice against the digital altering of pictures might hinder the creative process of a photographer, who might be falsely accused of retouching a bit too much and conveying harmful messages to younger girls.
The questions that I’ve been asking myself these days is: how can we achieve a balance between the world of advertising and the world of art? How can we still enjoy the master pieces of talented photographers or photo manipulators while keeping our self-esteem and self-perception intact when viewing an ad? Is it good enough to just mark an image of a model with flawless skin as “digitally enhanced” or does the problem lie elsewhere? Or is all this talk about the digital image altering just an old problem wrapped in a new paper (during Rubens’ times, I’m pretty sure I would have seen myself as too flat chested and thus not desirable)? And personally, I ask myself where the responsibility of the designer, the photographer and the editor comes into the equation? Would it hurt to show a little bit more realism in advertising, thus creating a wider gap between art and ads and making them easier to distinguish? Would a mascara really sell worse if the true result of the application would be shown?
You be the judge, ladies. I’m looking forward to hear your thoughts on this topic.