Close-Up: Do cosmetics ads mislead the public?

As another spot gets banned, Kate Nettleton explains why advertisers have a fine balance to strike.

Whether it's Penelope Cruz's false eyelashes, the bags under Twiggy's eyes (or lack thereof), the results of spurious scientific studies or bogus ingredients, many cosmetics companies have been charged, at one point or another, with "misleading consumers".

Johnson & Johnson is the latest to be caught doing so, after a recent ad was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for creating a misleading impression of its Clean & Clear products' powers. It was discovered that the immaculate "after" shots of the once acne- riddled teenagers had come into contact with an airbrush.

The ad, created by DDB, undoubtedly presented an unbalanced comparison, but, sometimes, advertisers are chastised for fairly minimal intervention.

According to the ASA's codes, ads must not mislead either by act or omission, and advertisers must hold robust evidence to substantiate their claims - the stronger the performance claims, the better the evidence has to be.

With such a tight regulatory framework, and a team of medical consultants employed by Clearcast to research any scientific claims before they hit the media, it is felt by some that it is now difficult for cosmetics companies to mislead consumers, intentionally or otherwise.

A business director working on a large cosmetics account explains: "The ASA is all too ready to uphold a complaint, and with Britain's media poised to report any adverse decision, it really isn't in an advertiser's interest to break the rules."

Yet L'Oreal still felt the need to place false eyelashes on Cruz and Olay brightened Twiggy's eyes in a recent campaign.

Nicola Mendelsohn, the chairman of Karmarama and a member of the board of Cosmetic Executive Women, a cosmetics industry group, says this is an attempt to inspire rather than deceive: "The cosmetics industry is selling hope and positivity to women, and consumers are savvy enough to know if you use the product, you're not going to suddenly turn into Cheryl Cole."

However, others remain convinced that susceptible young girls and even commercially attuned women are being sold a warped perception of a "normal" body, with their confidence being damaged as a result. "It's got so much easier to manipulate images and I don't think industry has stopped to think whether it's a responsible thing to do. People expect lighting will be improved but not that noses will be tweaked or waists slimmed," Jo Swinson, the MP who led the campaign against the airbrushed Twiggy ad, explains.

"Of course women want to look their best, but showing them images of perfection is just going to make them feel bad about themselves."

As Photoshop techniques de-velop and consumers' cries for transparency reach a crescendo, advertisers face a tough balancing act. There is fine line between enhancing an image to highlight a product's effect and a product demonstration that tips its effects into the realms of fantasy and deception, as one agency source says: "One extra word or dash of foundation can make all the difference."

While being mindful that peddling unattainable levels of cosmetic perfection may be harmful, agencies also have to keep an eye on their commercial objectives. As Richard Huntington, the director of strategy at Olay's agency Saatchi & Saatchi, puts it: "Within the bounds of credibility, it is our job to present the brands we work with in the most positive light. This is advertising, after all."

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AGENCY HEAD - Nicola Mendelsohn, chairman, Karmarama; board member, Cosmetic Executive Women

"If you start with the raw ingredient of some of the most beautiful women in the world, you're already in a different realm. Consumers want to buy into that hope and promise.

"I think cosmetics ads add to the charm of magazines and, ultimately, women have a different relationship with beauty ads than other types of advertising. They look to them for inspiration or fashion trends, so I don't think consumers want to see real-life images in a beauty brand's advertising."

MP - Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat MP; leader, Real Women campaign

"The inherent message is that women don't look OK as they are and that they need to buy X product to fix themselves.

"I don't think that advertisers are sat there like a James Bond villain thinking of how to make women's lives a misery, but they do recognise that playing on women's insecurities about their bodies can be a very effective way to sell products.

"There needs to be a labelling scheme along the lines of the traffic light nutrition values scheme. It would inform consumers and stop advertisers from being so click-happy with the mouse."

PLANNER - Richard Huntington, director of strategy, Saatchi & Saatchi

"All of us have to be mindful that the current climate makes honesty and transparency in the behaviour of our brands of paramount importance.

"Any whiff of manipulation, however slight, can be indescribably damaging for a brand.

"This is particularly the case for cosmetics advertising, where the image is not simply there for illustration or to dramatise the idea but as a product demonstration."

INDUSTRY BODY HEAD - Guy Parker, chief executive, Advertising Standards Authority

"The sector accounts for a relatively small proportion of ads complained about and a smaller number of upheld complaints.

"One or two recent issues have attracted controversy and I've no doubt that the industry is thinking carefully about the longer-term damage that might cause to its reputation.

"While the sector takes seriously its responsibility to comply with the codes, that doesn't mean individual companies always get it right. Mistakes are made and short-term commercial pressure can lead advertisers to push performance claims beyond the evidence."