By Stephanie Gosk, NBC News Correspondent
LONDON – The images bombard us daily, actors and models in magazines and billboards with impossibly flawless skin, impossibly perfect bodies, and impossibly white teeth.
Most media consumers are aware that the images staring back at them are airbrushed and retouched to reflect an ideal rather reality, but there is a growing movement both in the U.S. and Europe to hold advertisers and publishers to account for what many are calling false, and potentially harmful advertising.
In the U.K., Jo Swinson, a liberal member of parliament, has won an early battle in what will undoubtedly be a drawn-out war.
Swinson was disturbed by a new L’Oreal ad campaign picturing Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington promoting the latest age-defying products. The images were so retouched, Swinson told the U.K.’s advertising watchdog, that it resulted in false advertising.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) approached L’Oreal over the ad campaign but ultimately was not satisfied with the company’s response.
L’Oreal told the ASA that airbrushing was used to “lighten the skin, clean up makeup, reduce dark shadows and shading around the eyes, smooth the lips and darken the eyebrows,” but that the beneficial effects of their face creams were not misrepresented.
In a statement from L’Oreal on the Turlington ad, the company writes, “Even though the ad features an obviously illustrated effect, some lines are still clearly visible beneath the illustration and we do not believe that the ad exaggerates the effect that can be achieved using this product.”
Guy Parker, who works for the ASA said, “L’Oreal did not provide us with the evidence that allowed us to see what impact the retouching had on the final product. We knew they had retouched but we didn’t know to what extent. In those circumstances, we haven’t got a choice but to ban the ads.” It resulted in what they consider a breach of advertising standards. The ads have been pulled.
False expectations for young girls
But the argument goes beyond just misadvertising. Politicians and some health experts believe the steady stream of “perfect” bodies is giving some people, particularly young women, false expectations.
“Do we really want every photo, every image that we see to be actually so removed from reality that even someone like Julia Roberts or Christy Turlington are deemed not quite beautiful enough to go on an advertisement without extensive retouching?” asked Swinson.
The American Medical Association has adopted a new policy that encourages more cooperation between child and adolescent health groups and advertisers, stopping short of calling for official regulations.
“We have to stop exposing impressionable children and teenagers to advertisements portraying models with body types only attainable with the help of photo editing software,” Dr. Barbara L. McAneny explained in a statement released by the American Medical Association.
Two years ago in France, Valerie Boyer, a member of parliament, was so upset about the steady stream of altered photos that her teen daughters were exposed to, that she proposed the most radical response, legislation requiring advertisers and publishers put a warning on any image that has been retouched.
“We have to warn everybody that this body doesn’t exist,” Boyer said during an interview with NBC News at the time. But so far that legislation has stalled.
Dr. Vivian Diller a psychologist and author of “Face it: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change,” says enforcing laws against advertisers is probably not realistic, but that public pressure could ultimately have the same effect.
“Advertisers are based on making money,” she argued, “if people get turned off on those images it will have the biggest impact.”
Diller believes we are seeing a backlash against what she calls the “homogenization of beauty.”
“It’s beginning to feel repulsive, annoying,” she said. “I think people are angry even.”
That anger got two advertisements pulled here in the U.K. and many like Diller hope it is just the beginning.
Related link: Scoop: Airbrushed Julia Roberts ad called 'overly perfected' by U.K. agency