Industry is the whipping boy over face cream ads

Claire Beale on Advertising
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News that cosmetics giant L'Oreal has been caught cheating on its advertising claims was as predictable as the unearthing of another hacking victim at News International. In both cases, the surprising thing is that they're finally being called to account.

Yet the banning of two L'Oreal press ads by the Advertising Standards Authority has been seized upon by feverish commentators concerned with far more than the effects – or not – of a jar of cream. It has touched a deeper nerve, one that's sensitive to issues of body imagery, unrealistic physical ideals and pressures to conform.

The problem is that L'Oreal used digital retouching techniques to alter the photographs of two celebrities, Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington, featured in its campaigns. L'Oreal's make-up alone wasn't quite enough to transform the pair into the image of perfection the company is trying to sell us. So the US ad agency behind the campaigns, Gotham, had to cheat.

Jo Swinson, a Liberal Democrat MP, spotted that the ads were dishonest and misleading. But what really piqued her was that the cosmetics company was peddling unrealistic images of female beauty. Swinson says "it's time to consider how these idealised images are distorting our idea of beauty".

Once again advertising found itself the whipping boy for a whole host of social issues, such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

Unrealistic, idealised images of women (and men) are endemic. If Swinson wants to ban them all, she's got a big job on her hands.

As one commentator suggested, the best solution could be a universal flash on all advertising: "Warning: this is an advertisement. It is not real life." That should end any confusion.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign