Monday, August 3, 2009

Stop this airbrush ban nonsense

I agree with Tom Papworth on Liberal Vision. Banning airbrushing of models in adverts when they are aimed at minors? Come off it. It's silly. Really silly. (Please read Tom's piece for a more thoughtful discussion of this, and read on if you want an ignorant and confused rant).

Whether or not to ban something is not a simple judgment, of course. There is a case for banning when, for example, public safety is badly and clearly at risk (and I accept in the case of the young and image sensitivity, it is). Ralph Nader's advocacy of the automatic window stopper in the US, is an example. And yes, I once got drowned in vituperative vitriol when I suggested pointy knives should be banned (I'm still licking my wounds on that one, a year later). Same argument. If a product is outlandishly unsafe, there's a potential argument to ban it.

And, of course, there is evidence that the whole model/advertising industry creates very unhealthy pressure on youngsters which can exacerbate depression and other mental illnesses which sometimes endanger life. I welcome the policy paper on this whole subject (and hope to read it to reduce my ignorance as soon as I can find a copy). It certainly initiates a discussion which is healthy. I particularly welcome the proposal to make cosmetic surgery businesses publish their success rates. The whole cosmetic surgery industry drives me relatively crazy. The risk of death under general anaesthesia is so great that no civilised country should have such a general casual attitude to cosmetic surgery, as ours does.

And I am all for discounted membership of gyms and other methods to encourage physical exercise, as the paper proposes. Bring it on.

Ban airbrushing? So should we also ban skillful lighting? Nice clothes? Soft focus lenses? The old technique of Vaseline on the lens - should that be banned? Glossy TV programmes which use digital video techniques to improve the picture quality? Should we take the gloss off the paper of magazines aimed at youngsters? Twiggy refuses to be photographed before 12 noon because she's wrinkly in the mornings. Should we ban afternoon photos of Twiggy?

And how do you police a ban on airbrushing? How can you prove whether or not a picture has been airbrushed? And is there not an easy way to get round it with other digital techniques such as adjusted brightness, contrast, colour saturation, hue etc etc? Or indeed mechanical devices such as filter lenses?

Banning of such a narrow technique is not the answer. Education of youngsters and parents might be. Exposure of such techniques might be. But we really do risk making a laughing stock of the otherwise, no doubt (reading from a summary only at the moment) laudable paper "Real Women" by having such a risible suggestion within it.
For goodness sake, Jo Swinson has singled out (as well as a picture of Jessica Alba) a Twiggy advert picture for Olay. Are 16 year olds really swayed by Twiggy?! She's over sixty! And in her Olay photo (above) even after airbrushing - she looks it! What 16 year old uses Olay anyway?! It's unmitigated nonsense!
...And if you don't believe me here's a comment from experts: A spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Agency said it would be difficult to intervene and control airbrushing. They said the agency only intervenes if advertisements are misleading:
We received more than 26,000 complaints last year and could probably count on one hand the ones that had anything to do with airbrushing. General enhancement of images does go on - whether it's better lighting, fake steam added to hot food - but the majority of people are aware of it. If it comes to being misleading, like wrinkles being removed from an advert on wrinkle cream, then we could intervene.
Just to prove that I did try to find some background info on this, despite not finding the actual conference document, I did find the discussion document from the last conference on which it is based. There's no mention in there of airbrushing, but it does pose these questions:

20. How can we encourage women to have a more healthy body image? What role could the media and advertising play in generating this change of attitude?
21. How can we as society rebalance our ideas about female physical ‘perfection’ and challenge current trends in critiquing the female aesthetic? How can we ensure that models are healthy and maintain a healthy body weight?
...and contain this statement:

There is evidence that media portrayals of the ‘perfect’ female aesthetic is a driver in
eating disorders and psychological problems, however as a society we must take responsibility for the part we play in fuelling this industry – the popularity of magazines carrying commentaries on the physical appearance of celebrities leaves us in no doubt that there is an appetite for such critiques of the female aesthetic.

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