“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
- C. S. Lewis
One would think that with the myriad of problems facing the United States and the rest of the world, our lawmakers might be content to prioritize them, determine which are best to be solved by the private sector, the public sector, or some combinations thereof. But alas, there seem to be some that believe every problem should be solved with some form of government intervention and control. Recently, Congressional Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R -FL), with assistance from Ted Duetch (D – FL), and Lois Capps (D – CA), introduced a bill (H.R. 4341) allegedly to save our children from eating disorders and other mental problems by regulating the use of what essentially are labeled as “unrealistic Photoshop” alternations to pictures of models and others that are prominently displayed in advertising, magazine articles, etc. I was a bit surprised to find out that Ros-Lehtinen had sponsored this bill. I happen to be well-acquainted with her stances on many issues and often find myself in agreement with her.
They title the bill, “Truth in Advertising Act of 2014.” Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating advertisers should be allowed to make blatant false representations regarding their products’ benefits. But policing every photo tied to an advertisement under the watchful eye of some government overseer seems to be fraught with it its own set of problems.
So how could anything go wrong with such a well-meaning piece of legislation? Read on…
1) The Evils Of Photoshop
Photoshop is a popular target for bashing nowadays. And why not? It easily and quickly enables us to modify photos in a myriad of ways, including improving complexions, eliminating imperfections, and even changing body dimensions and shapes. Some people are incensed by such capabilities. They literally think this is a crime, or at least on the border of being one. Many have seen this famous youtube video. They claim that it has perverted our view of beauty. And yet, where is the proof of that? In every age, and in every culture, people have had different ideas regarding what constitutes beauty and what does not.
Surely this can’t be good for society. Somebody somewhere has to be suffering as a result. And if verifiable victims can’t be found? Well… it seems that some will invoke broad sweeping generalizations, create a flawed cause and effect relationship, and attempt to bypass our intellects by appealing to our emotions. By attaching positive names to legislation, even if the names have nothing to do with the real intent or outcome of the legislation, it makes it more difficult to be against a given bill. Thus supporters of a bill entitled “Truth in Advertising Act of 2014” challenges opponents with the obvious question, “So you mean to tell the citizens of this great nation that you are not for truth in advertising?”
2) Sounds Good, But…
The bill’s author states (I paraphrase) that there is some strong evidence that links eating disorders and other mental issues to children’s repeated viewing of “Photoshopped models.” Yet there is precious little proof offered. And any that is submitted should be rigorously reviewed and interrogated. There is a reason we have a 1st Amendment in the United States. Free speech, in whatever form it takes, is not something we should ever relinquish. Unfortunately, this bill is just another in a long line of attempts to have us trade our rights for some magical solution to an ill-defined and extremely vague cause and effect relationship.
Invoking the name of the AMA (American Medical Association) would seem to dissuade us from questioning the bill’s “sincere” attempt to help our children. And yet every time I hear the AMA’s name linked to a product endorsement or being used to refute some health claim, my mind harkens back to those many commercials from the 1930s through the 1950s featuring physician endorsements for cigarettes, despite plenty of evidence to believe there was a strong link between smoking and cancer and other respiratory maladies.
It is often said that one of the best things we can do for our children is help develop their critical thinking skills – to thoughtfully question everything they see and hear. Sadly, this bill’s author seems to want both children and their parents to turn off their critical thinking abilities. This bill is a real insult to both children and parents. First, the bill would have us believe that there is a strong link between eating disorders and other mental disorders and the viewing of images altered by Photoshop. This alone is a highly dubious claim that deserves a healthy degree of skepticism. The most obvious question is why, if Ros-Lehtinen is correct, do millions of people view Photoshop-altered images and fail to suffer from eating disorders and other maladies? And who is to say who has realistic and unrealistic notions of beauty? Secondly, the bill seems to assume that children’s parents are ill-suited to helping understand the context of advertising messages – as if only all-knowing bureaucrats from Washington, DC can do the job for us. Thirdly, there is no ability to measure the implied benefits against the very problems listed. Then again, it would be difficult for many government programs to quantify their ability to achieve the benefits they claim to provide. Fourth, over simplifying the cause of eating disorders and other mental illness to such as a degree as represented by this bill is simple-minded at best. Mental illness issues can be incredibly difficult to diagnose, understand, and treat.
And lastly, the real issue plaguing the United States, and well as many other developed nations, is obesity. If our children are really suffering from attempting to reach some mythical ideal, it sure isn’t apparent from the statistics. Here are a few facts the Mayo Clinic outlined in 2012:
- Currently 35.7 percent of American adults and 16.9 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese (defined as a body mass index over 30).
- If trends do not change, by 2030 the obesity rate for adults could top 44 percent nationally. In addition, rates could exceed 50 percent in 39 states and 60 percent in 13 states.
- Currently more than 25 million Americans have type 2 diabetes, 27 million have chronic heart disease, 68 million have hypertension and 795,000 suffer a stroke each year.
- Approximately one in three deaths from cancer each year (approximately 190,650) are related to obesity, poor nutrition or physical inactivity.
- In the next 20 years, obesity could contribute to more than 6 million cases of type 2 diabetes, 5 million cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and more than 400,000 cases of cancer.
- By 2030 costs associated with treating preventable obesity-related diseases are estimated to increase by $48 billion to $66 billion a year.
- The loss in economic productivity could be between $390 and $580 billion annually.
- It’s also projected that if the average body mass index was reduced by just 5 percent by 2030, thousands or millions of people could avoid obesity-related diseases, thereby saving billions of dollars in health care costs.
Despite Ros-Lehtinen’s concerns, it would seem that the number one eating disorder that our nation needs to address is its addiction to overeating. Ros-Lehtinen may make vague overtures to the link between Photoshopped images and eating disorders, but the links between being overweight and its impact on our life spans, joint disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular concerns, and other maladies are very well-defined and leave little room for debate.
But let’s explore her proposed bill and see where we might be headed if such legislation ever gets passed.
3) Welcome To The Bureau of Advertising Purity
Someone obviously needs to be in charge of what is acceptable and what is not in the world of advertising images. And that is precisely what Ros-Lehtinen proposes. Here’s the text from the bill:
(1) a strategy to reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted; and
(2) recommendations for an appropriate, risk-based regulatory framework with respect to such use.
Nothing like a “risk-based regulatory framework” to improve our lives, I always say… So how would this new organization work? Well for starters, we would need a pretty hefty bureaucracy. Total US Ad Sales spending in 2013 was approximately $180 billion. That number likely includes millions of images that the new Bureau of Advertising Purity would have to oversee. That is no trivial matter.
The agency would need processes for submitting, verifying, approving, denying, appealing, etc. images for publication on various media. A Standards Committee would have to define what is and is not an “acceptable” level of photo processing. One might imagine that color, contrast, skin smoothing, limb and torso reduction, muscle enlarging, and other categories of photo manipulation would have be defined in lengthy manuals, which of course would require frequent revisions. Some notion of standards for each of these relative to an alteration being “acceptable” would have to be defined as well. Just who in our society is qualified to make such decisions for the rest of us?
You can guarantee that developing such definitions would likely involve many research grants, studies, debates, and in the end, an umpteen thousand page documents that cover every picayune aspect of altering an image. One might also imagine that a large team of “Photoshop Forensic Specialists” (new career opportunities?) would be needed to verify the “authenticity” of photographs, particularly in the event of a dispute. A vast computer system would need to be developed for cataloging, tagging, and tracking images from advertising agencies.
The Bureau of Advertising Purity might eventually choose to co-locate their agents within the various advertising agencies, in order to observe the entire creative process first hand, thereby ensuring that no unacceptable or unauthorized Photoshop alterations take place. Advertisers might vie for that treasured endorsement of “Bureau of Advertising Purity Certified,” as they might speculate it will have a positive influence on sales.
4) The Photoshop Tax
The Bureau of Advertising Purity will not be properly implemented on the cheap. Vouching for having $180 billion dollars of advertising images pass the rigorous standards of the Bureau isn’t going to be done with handful of staff members and a few interns. We are talking tens of thousands of people. The money has to come from somewhere, so why not tax the very software at the heart of this debate – Photoshop!
But why stop there? There are other programs that enable various forms of photographic manipulation. Soon the tax would extend to just every aspect of the creative process. It only follows that some group of people would be responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and determining which programs, products, and services should be eligible for what will likely be dubbed as the “Photoshop Tax.” The tax would start out as something “reasonable.” With time and eventual increase in the Bureau’s size, scope, and responsibilities, this tax would also rise significantly.
Of course, many of our lawmakers would want you to conveniently forget that when the Income Tax was first passed in 1913, it was promised never to rise above 7%. And even then, there were healthy deductions one could take to reduce the tax. It would require just four short years before that “not to exceed 7%” tax rose to 77%. So much for political promises and their reality… Something to keep in mind the next time you hear a politician indicating that some government agency, under the guise of “helping” you, wants to diminish your choices and/or exert more control over your life.
Perhaps I am just being cynical. A federal bureaucracy, meant to serve the people, could never abuse its power. It’s not like the IRS would ever be used to punish political opponents or the Veterans Administration would ever conspire to falsify its treatment of veterans so legions of bureaucrats might rake in millions in bonus payments. Right?
5) Today, Cosmopolitan’s Cover. Tomorrow, Your Wedding Pictures & More…
The initial bill is only targeting images associated with advertising. But why stop there? It is only natural to expect that the Bureau of Advertising Purity would attempt to regulate ALL images they deemed as being “unrealistic representations of the human body.” What about all those young ladies are looking at Photoshop-processed wedding pictures on Etsy, for example? Aren’t these images, if altered by professional or amateur photographers, also potentially “dangerous” to young women’s mental health as well?
And what of high school yearbook photos? Photoshop did not invent skin smoothing techniques. Even in the 70s (that period of time just after the dinosaurs became extinct), “airbrushing” was a well-known and accepted practice – and much appreciated by those teens suffering from acne. No doubt that every teen was glad to have smooth skin in that once-in-a-lifetime yearbook photo. Little did they know the damage that was being caused by their adding to that heavy burden of “unrealistic expectations.”
And as the digital photography universe continues to experience exponential growth, who is minding all the sites where photography plays a major role? With today’s children learning to live out their lives on various internet forums and magazine sales tanking, doesn’t it also make sense to regulate Facebook, Twitter, flickr, 500px, 1x, Instagram, and other such services that feature significant volumes of photos? Shouldn’t these websites, like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and others, be suspect of fostering unrealistic expectations among young people, through a bit too much skin smoothing here, and a little extra liquify there?
6) Expanding The Notion of “Unrealistic”…
If “unrealistic” images of beauty or body types are the cause of so much mental anguish amongst our youth, should the Bureau of Advertising Purity be really be constrained to photos alone? I think not. What about the Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel, with its idealized images of the human body? Or the statue of David? What about the many statues of the ancient Greeks and Romans that represent perfection of the body? Perhaps the Fall of the Roman Empire was really due to having far too many statues of idealized men and women?
Is it so unrealistic to believe that some idealized statue, painting, or other work of art may also contribute to mental illness and eating disorders every bit as much as some Photoshopped ad? Should not the creation and display of art be linked to some standard created by the Bureau of Advertising Purity? And what of individuals who possess some notion of human beauty or body symmetry that simply beyond the hope of mere mortals? Should Angelina Jolie be banned from films because she possesses a unique form of beauty? Would the Bureau of Advertising Purity have stopped Sylvester Stallone from filming Rocky II, III, and IV because his physique was unattainable by most men? Should the Bureau prevent Kate Moss from modeling in advertisements because she is rail thin, more likely due to genetics as much as any other factor, and is such may cause some young girls to have some form of mental distress? Even if images of such people do not have to be manipulated to, does that mean that they should escape the moniker of “unrealistic.”
Take a good look at the before/after photos from any professional make-up artist’s work, and you will quickly realize just how the application of different tones can literally “sculpt” the face. If you look at the Dove youtube video, you will see that the vast majority of the young lady’s “transformation” is the result of hair style and make-up. Any good make-up artist will likely tell you with pride that they can significantly improve your looks. Should the use of and effects of make-up really be considered so much different than what Photohop’s can accomplish? A quick search on Amazon and a few peeks inside some of these books will reveal just how transformative some of these techniques can be. Why not regulate its use as well? It should be obvious that you do not need Photoshop to significantly alter someone’s appearance.
A skillful use of lighting can also make a huge difference in how we perceive a person. The Hollywood actresses and actors of yesteryear were nearly religious regarding how their faces were lit and the camera angles involved. Extensive testing was done to ensure that everyone looked their most glamorous self. Every light, every camera angle, and every lens was carefully considered in order to achieve what the actresses/actors and studio sought to achieve – idyllic results – whether they were associated with making someone look beautiful, or making them out to be the very incarnation of evil. Using lighting to manipulate someone’s appearance surely needs someone to be monitored, doesn’t it?
Here’s a photo of one of my all-time favorite actresses, Greer Garson. She was known to be nearly fanatical regarding having “her lighting man” arrange the lights and camera angles to show her at her best. This was not a responsibility to be handed to others who were not intimately familiar with her face and how light could sculpt it to bring out her best. Most of the photos were taken exposing her right side, with her face angled at 45 degrees from the camera and with a Fresnel light approximately 45-70 degrees above her head. You may say that this is not on par with Photoshop manipulation, but you cannot argue that lighting does not play critical role in our perceptions of someone’s appearance.
6c) Avatars, Dolls, Comics & Animated Films
Hollywood filmmakers involved with animated movies, illustrators of all kinds, and anyone else involved in depicting the human body, in any medium, must also be candidates for regulation. Comic books depicting various superheroes have always featured idealized body types. That would include Batman, Superman, The Shadow, Green Hornet, Superwoman, Cat Woman etc. And what of the fantasy work of Boris Vallejo? Should someone be looking over his shoulder and determining what is and is not a realistic image?
The Barbie doll has recently come under fire for representing an unrealistic image of the female body and supposedly causing widespread unrealistic ideas of feminine beauty. Some claim that Barbie “should” have more realistic dimensions.
Despite the outrage over Barbie, I apparently missed the protests over the movie “Avatar,” that featured 10 foot creatures with idyllic proportions that Barbie could only hope to match. Will the Bureau of Advertising Purity demand that the Na’vis look more proportional to their human counterparts, or are unrealistic stereotypes acceptable if they are associated with a different species and support a green agenda and an anti-military, anti-corporate theme?
7) Why Not Regulate The Message Itself?
With the Bureau of Advertising Purity expanding their scope to photo sharing sites, Facebook, the art world, illustrations, and film makers, you have to wonder if they are really getting to the heart of the issue – namely, just how realistic are some of the ads we view, and are they really preying on people’s insecurities, hopes, dreams, and fears? Certainly someone could argue that many ads may cause a portion of our population to have unrealistic expectations and/or to chase wealth for the purposes of securing material possessions that may add precious little value to their lives. We don’t need Photoshop to create such connections.
When Michael Jordan began advertising “Air Jordan” basketball shoes and clothing some years ago, his magical aura had a tremendous impact on demand. At one time, it seemed that every young boy dreamed of having a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes, even those who rarely played basketball and had little talent for the game. Sadly, there have been a number of well-documented cases of kids being killed for their Air Jordan sneakers. For poor kids in rough neighborhoods, being sold on the unrealistic dream that wearing a magical pair of sneakers could somehow transform their lives, seems to be dubious at best, and a rather tragic misdeed at worst. Your heart has to go out to the families of those killed over something so trivial as a pair of basketball shoes, which will likely show up in the local Goodwill once they get a bit of wear and are replaced by the next year’s model.
Beyond the images conveyed in our advertising, perhaps the Bureau of Advertising Purity should also focus on the message that is embodied in the ads. This opens up an entire new can of worms relative to legal and financial responsibility as well as regulatory oversight. If Michael Jordan and Nike benefit from the mania they caused with their basketball shoe advertisements, should they be made liable for the murders and/or broken dreams that may stem from them? If a young man, engaging in weight lifting, overdoses on steroids, are we ready to indict Iron Man Magazine because month-after-month, it plastered the pages with images of unachievable (by the vast majority of people) looking images of bodybuilders?
8) What Could Go Wrong With Such A Well-Meaning Idea?
As you can see, quite a bit. Once you buy into the simple-minded notion that broad swaths of the population are being negatively affected by some Photoshopped images, and implement another government agency to control the publication of images, you are heading down a slippery slope. The creative process itself will bog down due compliance challenges with continually changing and growing numbers of regulations. And the private sector (business and creative) will soon contract as the legion of bureaucrats grows.
No doubt that some advertising companies will be able to skirt some of the Bureau’s laws, based on donating to certain politicians who hold sway with Bureau’s management. Lawsuits will spiral out of control, since instead of people taking responsibility for their choices, they will increasingly blame advertisers and others that they believe somehow caused them mental or physical anguish. And with each new controversy, the cry will go out that, if we will only expand the size, scope, and sphere of control of the Bureau of Advertising Purity, none of these bad things will happen. Eventually, we will end up with commercials that look something like this parody, and a society to match:
Despite any soaring emotional rhetoric associated with this bill, it is simply a bad idea. History shows that censorship, in all its flavors, has always been offered as a means of protecting and helping us. But it never turns out that way. And blaming complex mental disorders on digitally altered photographs is a terribly specious argument, as well as an insult to our intelligence. Visual influences of beauty and physical ideals are not limited to Photoshopped images, but rather extend to the realms of film, art, and myriad of other aspects of our culture. Once the bureaucrats master the control of Photoshop, it is only a matter of time before they set their sights on other targets.
In the last year alone, we discovered that the many promises of being able to keep our healthcare plans, the Veterans Administration officials assurances that it was providing adequate medical treatment to our veterans, the IRS’ claims that it was not targeting political opponents, and a video alleged to have been the impetus for the murder of our Ambassador and military personnel in Benghazi all turned out to be lies. As such, it would seem that we should be more worried about the veracity and integrity of our politicians, instead of photos associated with product advertisements.
What Rep. Ros-Lehtinen fails to realize is that the free market can indeed foster the very change she seeks – if non-Photoshopped ads are what the public truly wants. As an example, if a given dress designer increases its sales as a result of putting average-looking models in their ads, featuring little make-up and little, if any, Photoshop modifications, people will take note. Competitors, who continue to use highly modified photos, will quickly follow suit in switching to more natural looking advertisements, lest they see their market share and sales decrease. It is that simple. No Bureau of Advertising Purity required.
I urge everyone to write their congressional representatives as well as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. Let them know that you would rather have them focus on the serious challenges of the day. Emphasize that you are responsible for the education and training of your children, not the Federal government. Remind them that attempting to regulate people’s use of Photoshop, just as with any form of censorship, will create far more problems than it solves. And suggest that if they are genuinely concerned about Truth in Advertising, they should start with their own legislation and campaign promises.
“Truth is the first casualty in war.”
- E.D. Morel
Perhaps the same could be said of politics as well.