Our Photoshopping Disorder: The Truth in Advertising Bill Asks Congress to Regulate Deceptive Images
Nearly three years ago, Seth Matlins, a former Hollywood marketing executive who spent almost nine years at agency-powerhouse CAA and served as CMO at Live Nation Entertainment, began looking at the world through the eyes of his daughter and the woman she would one day become. He considered the obstacles “that can leap out and get in the way of a little girl trying to grow up happy and trying to becoming a sustainably happy woman,” he told The Daily Beast. He quit his million-dollar gig to, in conjunction with his wife, Eva, become an empowering resource for girls and young women.
“In August 2011, there was a story that I read about a member of the British parliament [Jo Swinson] who had taken down two Lancôme billboards in London—one had Julia Roberts, the other had Christy Turlington,” he said. “And she took them down because she said they provided such a false and unrealistic expectation of what women should and could look like, that it was damaging. I thought to myself, who in the world is looking out for my daughter—for our children—from a legislative perspective here? And I didn’t see anyone, because there was no one.”
That same month, Matlins published an op-ed on The Huffington Post titled “Why Beauty Ads Should Be Legislated.” He called for integration from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to regulate and eventually prevent deceptive images in advertisements, highlighting the relationship between these unattainable media expectations and a portfolio of public health issues—including “emotional, mental, and physical.”
It was also that year—2011—that the American Medical Association said, “we must stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software,” and asked the advertising industry to “develop guidelines… that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.”
Three years later, the industry has not changed its practice or increased regulation.
Although Matlin’s idea dates back to 2011, the official bill, H.R. 4341: Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, was introduced to Congress on March 27, 2014. The bipartisan bill aims “to direct the Federal Trade Commission to submit to Congress a report on the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted.” Presented by co-sponsors Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Ted Deutch (D-FL), and receiving support from the Eating Disorder Coalition (EDC), ‘The Truth in Advertising’ bill asks the FTC to produce “a strategy to reduce the use…of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted.” It also requests “recommendations for an appropriate, risk-based regulatory framework with respect to such use” following an 18-month period dedicated to researching the links between unrealistic body expectations and mental, emotional, and physical health issues.
“This bill specifically does not require the FTC to take a specific approach to these issues,” Capps told The Daily Beast. “Instead, it is calling for conversation to begin on what is an altered body image, what effects does it have on the health and well-being of consumers, and if that false advertising is harmful, how to move forward to address it. It also directs the FTC to work with a wide range of stakeholders to not only lead to the most informed product, but to also ensure that the groups who can make a change in this area are engaged in the conversation—and any possible solutions—from the start. While I acknowledge that it is difficult to move legislation in the current Congress, this bipartisan bill is one that has the chance to be a small but meaningful step forward for our youth.”
Her co-sponsor, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, agreed that the focus of this bill stems from the harm these advertisements can have on people’s health and well-being—especially the young.
“The photoshopped images of children are particularly disturbing,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen told The Daily Beast when asked why she got involved with this legislation. “Advertisers are photoshopping children in ads that encourage young women and men to attempt to replicate unrealistic or impossible bodies, leading to serious health problems like eating disorders. Incredibly, one to two of every 100 children in America suffer from an eating disorder. Anorexia is killing more Americans than any other mental illness, and it is time we did something about it.”
According to The National Institute on Media and the Family, the medical statistics point to a problem: 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their appearance and body image. When they reach age 17, the number jumps to 78 percent. Eating disorders have the highest mortality of all mental illnesses; 30 percent of high school girls and 16 percent of high school boys suffer from disordered eating. But does our government really have the ability to both regulate and improve the current situation without infringing on the rights of advertisers or privatized companies?
“Yes, this is exactly what the FTC was created to do,” Matlins explained, when asked if this situation can truly be regulated by the government. “They’re the nation’s consumer protection agency. Rather than looking at one advertisement and one claim, which is what they do day in and day out, we’re asking the FTC to look at an entire class of advertising, because the practice of materially changing people in these ads is not limited to fashion or beauty, or movie studios, record labels, or TV networks. It’s across industry, and it’s equally deceptive and damaging regardless of what industry it emanates.”
Yet the main issue with the bill is its omission of the editorial sector, which is protected by the First Amendment. Recent news coverage concerning body image and social media has been particularly focused on photoshop infractions seen in magazine covers and spreads—think Jezebel’s campaign for the release of unretouched photos of Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot, or young pop star Lorde calling out Canadian glossy FASHION magazine for seemingly adjusting her nose in one of the images.
While they have considered adding publishing to the mix, it’s difficult to do so without encroaching on First Amendment freedom, or, as Ros-Lehtinen pointed out, “restricting artistic expression.” Although advertisements are required to be regulated by the FTC, publications are protected under the idea of “commercial speech.”
When asked about the absence of involvement of the publishing industry, Matlins assured me that this bill is not “a silver bullet. It will not solve, nor address, every single problem that affects the way we feel about ourselves, that affects health and happiness. Editorial certainly contributes to it. Other things contribute to it. Our bill is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not going against things that are universally protected.”
So what exactly will the bill aim to protect? And more importantly, who will decide what makes an offending image?
“What the bill defines as a material change are changes to shape, size, proportion, color, or the enhancement or removal of an individual feature. So, if you change Keira Knightley’s bust the way they did on a movie poster, that counts. If you make Melissa McCarthy smaller the way they did in The Heat, that counts. That crosses a line to misrepresentation and deception all in the pursuit of selling,” Matlin explains. “As a marketer, I know that advertising sells more than the products or services in it.”
The tools to get these improvements up and running are already there. While the bill may seem like a ground-breaking move, the foundation of what its asking for already legally exists under Section Five of the Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC already has the ability to prohibit “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” So it’s hard not to wonder, why have they not been doing anything about it? Despite some of its shortfalls in regards to editorial (which is understandable, considering the protections of the Constitution), the bill (and its congressional support) may be the push the FTC needs to make strides—albeit, small ones—to regulate photoshopping.
“This bill in particular is taking the right steps,” Johanna Kandel, president of the EDC, told The Daily Beast. “It asks the FTC to take 18 months to do really thorough research and take a look at the implications of these altered images. And then it also asks them what the next steps are. We’re not asking them to move mountains. We’re just asking them to do the research.”