Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lib Dems guilty of airbrushing ASA ruling

The Liberal Democrats' Jo Swinson is celebrating the first major victory in her nannyish campaign to restrict airbrushing in adverts, on the supposed grounds that looking at unrealistic pictures in magazines may lead teenage girls to develop a negative body-image. This year's Lib Dem conference adopted with little opposition her policy of forcing advertisers to disclose if any airbrushing had gone one, and to ban it entirely in publications aimed at under 16s. To advance her case, Swinson had earlier encouraged people to complain to the Advertising Standards Agency about an advert featuring the 59-year old Twiggy.

Swinson's campaign garnered considerable publicity, partly, no doubt, because of the opportunity it gave the Daily Mail to run an unflattering photo of the model at the supermarket looking her age. In the event, some 700 people responded to the invitation to complaint by registering at a Lib Dem website. That's not much, these days - it doesn't compare to the forty thousand who were motivated to complain about Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, for example. There was also a single "independent" complaint.

The ASA have now agreed that this particular image of the Sixties survivor, used to advertise Olay eye lotion, may have been misleading. Since the advert has been withdrawn, the company acknowledging that the digital manipulation was "inconsistent with their own policies" the adjudication was a purely academic exercise. Nevertheless, the quango looked into the matter. The adjudication says,


We acknowledged that advertisers were keen to present their products in their most positive light using techniques such as post-production enhancement and the re-touching of images. However, we considered that the post-production re-touching of this ad, specifically in the eye area, could give consumers a misleading impression of the effect the product could achieve. We considered that the combination of references to "younger-looking eyes", including the claim "Reduces the look of wrinkles and dark circles for brighter, young-looking eyes", and post-production re-touching of Twiggys image around the eye area was likely to mislead.


The ASA, in short, accepted that, in the specific circumstances of an advert for allegedly wrinkle-reducing eye-cream, to airbrush out the wrinkles constituted a breach of the advertising code.

This isn't a surprise. As I noted around the time that Swinson launched her "Real Women" campaign, "there are already tough rules in place to deal with advertisements which make misleading claims." But of course the campaign wasn't about whether or not consumers were likely to be misled about the magical powers of Olay's eye lotion. The group complaint accused the ad of being "socially irresponsible". In her press release today, Swinson expresses the hope that the ASA's decision "marks the first step in really getting airbrushing in advertising under control" and goes on:

Experts have already proved that airbrushing contributes to a host of problems in women and young girls such as depression and eating disorders.

Liberal Democrats believe in the freedom of companies to advertise but we also believe in the freedom of women to be as comfortable as possible with their bodies. They shouldn’t constantly feel the need to measure up to a very narrow range of digitally manipulated pictures.

Experts have proved no such thing, of course; and Swinson's concept of a "freedom" not to see airbrushed adverts is, from a liberal point of view, rather a strange one. But what the press release doesn't say is that the main thrust of the campaign, that the advert was "socially irresponsible", was specifically rejected by the ASA ruling.

The adjudication noted that the advert was aimed at older women - indeed, it appeared in a magazine read mainly be a more mature readership. The ASA considered that the readers "would understand that the ad set out to associate the well-known mature female model with a brand, and would not infer that Twiggys appearance in the ad was achieved solely through the use of Olay Definity." [This seems to contradict the decision that it was "likely to mislead".] Most importantly:

We concluded that, in the context of an ad that featured a mature model likely to appeal to women of an older age group, the image was unlikely to have a negative impact on perceptions of body image among the target audience and was not socially irresponsible.

This ought to be a considerable setback for the Swinson campaign. The ASA have not said that an airbrushed advert could never be considered "socially irresponsible"; merely that the one advert that she decided to concentrate on to make her point was not. But if there are other, more clearly "irresponsible" examples of airbrushing out there, why did Swinson decide to focus on this one in particular? Couldn't she find any that better fitted her case?

The Lib Dem press release doesn't claim that the ASA accepted their main complaint, but neither does it mention the fact that it was rejected. That inconvenient detail has been airbrushed out. It might be thought that the failure of the complaint demonstrates the necessity for laws of the kind Swinson is pushing for - in which case, Swinson would have done better (from her point of view) to play up the rejection of proof that the ASA code is wholly inadequate. But that would sit oddly with the fact that the one advert she thought it worthwhile to complain about was found to be in breach. So instead she "welcomes" the ruling as proof of the success of her campaign. Yet by so doing, she gives the impression that the existing code is up to the job. So why the need for new laws?