Airbrushing: the kids are ok with image manipulation

A study by think tank Credos casts fresh light on women's perception of airbrushing, as young people have their eyes open to image manipulation

Airbrushing: Credos is using stages of airbrushed images to gauge consumers' perceptions
Airbrushing: Credos is using stages of airbrushed images to gauge consumers' perceptions

Campaigns led by MPs, ad bans and a stated determination by some brands to stop the airbrushing of ads have cemented the issue's place on the agenda.

Digital manipulation returned to the headlines last month when the ASA banned two 'misleading' L'Oreal ads in which post-production alterations had been made to facial images. They follow retailer Debenhams' pledge last year to not use the practice in its advertising, as well as a campaign launched by Boots' No7 brand last week, highlighting a lack of retouched images.

Together, all this looks like a concerted drive to clamp down on fakery, but is the consumer really concerned?

The degree to which audiences react to manipulated images depends largely on their age and familiarity with new technologies, according to Karen Fraser, director of Credos, the Advertising Association's independently governed think tank. It is carrying out a study into the subject that looks to widen the debate to include the voices of those at whom the ads are aimed.

Fraser has been polling females between the ages of 10 and 21, as well as their mothers, about perceptions of advertising messages.

In an exclusive preview of some of the initial findings, ahead of the study's full publication next month, the evidence suggests that manipulation in advertising is easily recognised by young women and girls.

Girls are quicker than their parents to tell ads from other content and have a healthy scepticism about what they see and read in ads, notes Fraser. However, mothers assumed their children would be more susceptible to the messages.

Despite revealing a deep interest in celebrity culture, she says the research provoked no responses indicating concerns about manipulated images or body consciousness from girls and young women.

'They recognise that different techniques are used, but do not believe everything they see,' adds Fraser. 'This tells me they are reacting appropriately to this advertising.'

Technical awareness

Having grown up with digital technology, the research found younger generations are naturally more questioning of ads and able to 'decode' images. Indeed, many are manipulating images of themselves to post online, says Fraser. One girl admitted to tweaking images to make herself look more tanned.

The digital alteration of ads is not the sole concern, however; it is also the celebrity-soaked culture in which they operate, says National Schools Partnership chief executive Mark Fawcett.

While conceding that advertisers are becoming more responsible with their marketing messages, Fawcett says research by his organisation shows that teachers recognise a rising concern among pupils who now aspire to an 'unrealistic celebrity body image'.

People may be more aware of airbrushing and other techniques, but these are just 'special effects' related to this bigger problem, adds Fawcett.

'Digital manipulation is just one part of the advertiser's tool kit; people are aware of it and not overly concerned,' he says. 'Of greater concern is the attitude toward instant gratification, fuelled by a range of media channels.'

Fawcett also doubts the veracity of the study's findings about young people's ability to look at ads dispassionately. 'Very few people of any age, when they are being polled about being susceptible to advertising, will say that they are,' he contends.

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP spearheading a campaign against airbrushing whose complaint led to the ASA's ruling against L'Oreal last month, says it is worrying if girls feel the need to idealise their own image.

'Airbrushing and imagery is only one part, it's not the only factor, but it's important; idealised, perfect images are not real,' she says. 'We believe there is evidence, which we have submitted to the ASA, to show they have a negative impact on self-esteem, body image and confidence, and that can lead to extreme health problems.'

However, a drive to use images that have not been drastically altered does not simply guard against false comparisons. According to Ed Watson, Debenhams' head of PR it also makes financial sense.

The retailer now makes only minor changes, 'like pigmentation or a stray hair,' he says. 'Not only does it make sense from a moral point of view, it ticks the economic boxes. Millions of pounds a year are spent by organisations retouching perfectly good images.'

In straitened times, Watson's cost argument might be the clincher for many brands, particularly if it is the adults who are failing to spot the airbrushed ads rather than their kids.