Enlarged to Show Texture: Should Fashion Magazines Be Forced to Disclose Photographic Manipulation?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I have a distinct memory from my first year of immigrating to America involving cereal boxes.  I remember looking at the bowls on the front filled with monster sized cereal and feeling completely confused when, upon opening the box, I would inevitably discover a much smaller version.  We didn’t have cereal in Russia, nor did we have advertising, and the discrepancy remained a mystery until I learned to read English well enough to understand the “Enlarged to show texture” disclaimer. Before writing this post, I was curious, so I did some informal research, and (as late as) the 80’s cereal boxes didn’t have this. I wasn’t able to find specific information for when and why the FDA passed this requirement, but I imagine it had something to do with false advertising.

Now, consider this video op-ed in the NYT arguing that magazines should let readers know if photographs have been retouched and to what extent, and, if we accept that this is possibly an artistic endeavor, give credit to the retoucher.  Sounds great, but I have one question: why hasn’t this already been done?  Enlarging cereal and enlarging breasts don’t seem that different.

I’ll venture a guess. In the case of the cereal, it is the actual product that is being modified, and therefore falsely advertised. In the case of fashion/beauty advertisements, however, the product remains a true representation – it is the models that are manipulated.  No false advertisement here.  Or, is there?

A lot of work has been done on deconstructing what it is that advertisements in fashion magazines actually advertise. Is it the product, or a certain lifestyle?  Is it the perfume, or having sex appeal?  Advertisements such as these evade prosecution for “false advertising” because they are not about information, but suggestion.  How can suggestion, especially when based on associations, emotions and symbolic connotation be proven false?  As great as it would be, I don’t foresee “false suggestion” becoming a legal offense anytime soon.

But there might be another, consumer driven explanation.  As much as we are outraged by the ubiquitous photoshoping, I suspect, we also like it.  As David Campbell suggests on his blog, “desire for photographic veracity has persisted, perhaps even intensified, even as knowledge about image manipulation becomes more widespread…The persistence and power of this desire despite the long history of photographic manipulation (chemical and digital) is something that needs explanation.”  Indeed.  Would we still buy these magazines if the models were unphotoshoped?  I am not sure of the motivations of their readers, but I’ll posit that it has as much, if not more, to do with fantasy than content, and I don’t think fantasy is necessarily a bad thing.  We all need an escape. Even when I indulge in something that is healthy, like dancing flamenco, I would be lying if I said it had nothing to do with my obsession with gypsies or with the images I have in my mind of famous flamencas.  The difference, of course, is maintaining a healthy difference between fantasy and reality (and its arguable that this difference isn’t nearly as big as we imagine), while still allowing readers to indulge.  How this is to be accomplished?  Making magazines accountable to their readers is definitely one way, but it might not be enough.  After all, there is no way to open an advertisement to see what’s really inside.