Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Aspiration vs the pursuit of Perfection

Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson wants to ban what's still colloquially called 'airbrushing' in children's advertising. If only it was as romantic as that any more, and not just a bunch of guys playing around on Quark and rework reality in about four minutes.
The main reason is, obviously, the generation of unrealistic body images in young girls. Naturally, plenty of parts of the ad industry (beauty anyone?) would rather keep up these shenanigans. What this difference of opinion comes from is two different notions of what happens in the mind when you see something like this:

(That's Twiggy. She's 59!)

1: Wow, she's pretty. Maybe if I buy these products I can look pretty too?
2: Oh god, I'll never be as beautiful as that. I hate myself.

The question of how much a shot of aspirational marketing causes one vs. the other is a classic, thorny one. Because while we want to sell more of x, we'd like to think that we're not actually damaging people in the process. Indeed, at its best advertising both sells product and as a side effect, makes you smile, makes you see the world in a different light, or makes a certain part of the world swim into sharp focus just for a second.

Smart brands/advertisers realised that making the target feel bad while selling to them is generally a bad idea, some time ago. And that saying "here's a sense of inadequacy, now buy our thing," is not the best proposition. How to have your cake and eat it? Invert the debate, as Dove did. Of course, starting anything with "Campaign For-" is always a bonus.

Or, you can subvert the debate. The thing is, it is advertising's job and modus operandi to present a somewhat altered notion of reality. Meerkats don't talk. Lynx won't get you laid. Dentists don't develop toothbrushes with the aid of Star Trek-esque holodeck programs. So why not do something utterly ludicrous with your photoshop wizardry? Make your models look like animals, like aliens, like each other? No.17 (I think it was) did a makeup competition via MySpace a few years back. Why not do a photoshopping competition, to get teens wise to the practice? When Adobe were asked to comment on the airbrushing story, they hit back nicely:

"we encourage the advertising community to apply good judgement and use these tools responsibly, and we are glad that the increasingly broad availability of digital imaging tools makes it possible for even children to understand that the photos they see in magazines may easily have been manipulated."

And it's true. As long as there's been media or a creative process of any sort (just look at the way Michaelangelo's David is done in accordance with the classical Golden Mean), there has been idealisation. And that it has become more public, more unabashed, can only be a good thing - as long as we treat the process with the incredulity it deserves.

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