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Homepage / Looking good, feeling… not so good: the impact of advertising and social media on body image

Looking good, feeling… not so good: the impact of advertising and social media on body image


With a recent Government report showing a shocking 61% of adults and 66% of children feel negatively about their body image, there has never been a better time to get to grips with what is fuelling such widespread dissatisfaction with what nature gave us, and what we can do to reverse the trend.

Whether it is our size or shape, skin tone, hair texture or something else, we are holding ourselves up to unrealistic standards of beauty – and it is hugely damaging. Advertisements for clothing or beauty products, social media ‘influencers’, celebrity culture and the film and television industry all play their part in bombarding us with images of so-called ‘perfection’, inevitably making many of us feel inadequate if our own appearance doesn’t measure up.

Lockdown has only exacerbated the problem, with the growth in popularity of video conferencing leading to a so-called ‘Zoom Boom’ increase in demand for cosmetic surgery.

So, we want to look good – what’s the problem?

In the UK, there is a wealth of research that shows these ‘perfect’ images impact on our perception of what is ‘normal’ and desirable, creating unrealistic, unhealthy and unattainable beauty ideals. When our own appearance does not and may never be able to match that of our ideal, it can be hugely damaging for our mental health, accentuating insecurities and encouraging negative compulsive behaviours such as eating disorders.

We worry that we look too old, that we are not thin enough, that our skin tone is too pale or too dark, that our hair doesn’t look glossy and full of body like the people in the adverts or on television, that our facial features are the wrong size or shape. Adverts frequently fail to accurately reflect their audience, discriminating against those with disabilities and failing to represent the range of ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities, body shapes and sizes, and more, within our gloriously diverse communities.

Digital photo retouching of advertising imagery is ubiquitous, and may involve modifying skin tone, smoothing out wrinkles, erasing blemishes, or altering someone’s body size or shape. Beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder – it is now in the hands of a digital designer.

We know most advertising images are airbrushed or retouched in some way, but we still want to emulate them, if the number of apps enabling users to digitally alter their looks by way of filters are anything to go by.

What are the Government and industry doing to help?

The latest House of Commons inquiry report describes negative body image as: “a public health issue that can last a lifetime and be passed down to generations.”

Certainly, it is something that is increasingly on Westminster’s radar. Content that contributes to negative body image is included in the Government’s online harms legislation, and compulsory teaching encouraging positive body image was recently introduced into the school curriculum. Public Health England is reconsidering the use of BMI as a measure of individual health, and there are hopes for increased funding for mental health research into this area.

Meanwhile, in industry, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, have been taking action. The ASA has banned a number of advertisements accused of misleading consumers using digitally altered images. These include an Olay beauty advert that digitally altered Twiggy to make her appear younger, and a L’Oreal campaign featuring actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington that was considered to be ‘overly-airbrushed’.

Complaints about unhealthily thin models which have been upheld include a Guccio Gucci promotional video and an advert for SportMax, both of which were deemed to be “irresponsible” in their portrayal of the female body.

In addition, the ASA has provided clear guidance to ensure responsible use of filters in advertising on social media platforms, saying they should never be applied to exaggerate the efficacy of beauty products.

Social media platforms have also taken action to protect their users, with adverts for fasting apps, unsafe supplements, weight loss products and plans, and cosmetic procedures restricted to over 18s, or banned altogether.

And yet, the problem persists.

Why isn’t it working?

Legislation was introduced in France in 2017 requiring all edited images to be labelled as such, but studies suggest knowing images have been digitally altered and are therefore unrealistic has little impact on the viewer. Despite the label, consumers still aspire to the ideal image, meaning the damage is still being done.

Even when advertising has purported to focus on natural body shapes and promoting inner beauty, such as with the Dove Real Beauty campaign in 2004, concerns have been raised that these types of images can cause negative impact.

Research also shows that, perversely, consumers actually want to see perfect images. Studies have shown that consumers find attractiveness more trustworthy and that knowing we are buying into a fantasy – as was highlighted in the recent case where Khloe Kardashian tried to get a less-than-perfect image removed from social media – makes little to no difference.

So, where do we go from here?

It is clear that more urgently needs to be done to tackle this issue. The small steps we have taken so far are just that – and they are not working. We need to protect ourselves, our children, and our children’s children, from the very real harm these images cause.

The Government must work with companies and the ASA to require the use of more diverse and representative images, and consider banning image editing altogether.

Lack of diversity must be addressed: all ethnicities, genders, body shapes and sizes should be represented across advertising, both on and offline. We need to remember that negative body image is not something that just affects women and girls – it affects men and boys too – and ensure appropriate, honest representation across the board.

It’s not that big an ask, surely, for companies to be more responsible in their marketing to consumers, and more honest in their presentation of their audience and the products they sell.

Instead of adding calorie labels to food and aggressively trying to educate people against obesity – which risks aggravating the symptoms of those with eating disorders – perhaps we could instead focus on promoting what healthy bodies look and feel like? That would be better for everyone’s psychological wellbeing, as well as the way our society functions. Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is proof that telling real stories about real people is the way to reach real consumers with an important message.

Social media giants like Facebook and Instagram need to protect their users with positive body image policies that do more than just pay lip service to the issue, and take a stand against appearance-based bullying and harassment where it is brought to their attention. Let’s remove those filters on SnapChat, Facebook and Tik Tok that enable people to erase flaws and enhance their image.

In the words of Unilever – a company that is making strides in the right direction by pledging to end discrimination in beauty, champion inclusion, challenge narrow beauty ideals, drive gender equity and build a more inclusive portfolio of products – let’s “harness the power of [brands] to help bring about a more inclusive and representative society for all people, no matter their gender, what they look like, who they love, or what their bodies can or can’t do.” Incidentally, Unilever has also promised to stop digitally altering images.

What can marketers do?

Marketing is about addressing what motivates consumers to buy, understanding their attitudes and needs, and aligning that with the benefits of products and brands through the images and text we use to reach them.

But, just because images of ‘perfection’ in advertising motivate people to buy, and consumers want to see them, doesn’t mean they are ethically the right means by which to market a brand’s products or services.

It is time for change. Let’s usher in a new era of beauty that is equitable and inclusive. Let’s praise the authentic and the real. Let’s get away from harmful stereotypes.

Geri Levin, Social Media Manager at Mind, the mental health charity, said: “The danger with social media is that we think the content we see is real life, when in fact it’s usually a highly edited snapshot of an unrealistic and unachievable reality. As social media marketers we need to talk more about the negative effects this can have on mental health, and make sure we celebrate diverse and unedited bodies and lifestyles in our content.”

As marketers, we need to build awareness of our audience’s dilemma into our strategies and make conscious efforts to understand and represent the full range of our consumers, building relationships with them without reinforcing stereotypes.

With our powerful marketing platforms, we have the ability to spread the awareness that we all deserve to be celebrated, and to spark the conservations that pick each other up.

Let’s protect consumers from edited photos and make sure they feel included, so that maybe in future they won’t feel the need to alter their own images in their social media posts.

Finally, as consumers ourselves, let’s remember to vote with our feet, supporting those that support us by showing us the real, tangible and authentic.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield has been a world leader in management education and research for over 50 years, helping individuals and organisations learn and succeed by transforming knowledge into action. We are dedicated to creating responsible management thinking, improving business performance and inspiring the next generation of business leaders. We work to change the lives of our students and executives by encouraging innovation and creative thinking, as well as the drive to succeed and make a real impact on their organisations.

Organisations as diverse as Jaguar Land Rover, BAE Systems, Royal Dutch Shell, L’Oréal, UNICEF and the African Development Bank have benefited from our work, which ranges from management research projects, through staff talent management development on our MBA courses, to customised executive programmes.

Cranfield is one of an elite group of Schools worldwide to hold the triple accreditation of: AACSB International (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) and AMBA (the Association of MBAs).

We are in the Top 10 International Business Schools in the Forbes’ ranking.

Our open and customised executive education programmes are ranked in the top five in the UK, according to the latest Financial Times survey, and in the top ten in the world for international reach. Over 10,000 people come to Cranfield each year to benefit from our executive and professional development programmes.

Written By: Cranfield University

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