The Ugly Effect Of Advertising On Your Kids — And How You Can Stop It

Because Photoshop is just as bad as second-hand smoke.

by Seth Matlins
Originally Published: 

The following was syndicated from Medium for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at TheForum@Fatherly.com.

Here’s the thing about advertising. It really works. Sometimes.

Sometimes it sells you stuff you need; sometimes it sells you stuff you just want. But often, what it’s really selling you is the promise of an idealized, unattainable, and unhealthy version of yourself.

And the ugly truth is when advertising sells that (and uses that stuff to sell) sometimes, unintentionally, really bad things happen. Nowhere is this more the case than with advertising that “photoshops,” or otherwise digitally and materially alters the people in it into something they aren’t and never can be. These ads are teaching kids to chase computer-generated versions of “perfection” that there’s no chance, no hope, and no way of ever catching, because the images aren’t real, just fabrications of what is.

Think of these ads as the visual equivalent of secondhand smoke: ubiquitous, unavoidable clouds of toxic messaging, infecting minds and bodies (of children, teen girls, and women disproportionately). And faced with what Lupita Nyong’o poignantly called the “seduction of inadequacy,” we’re buying into these messages and this “inadequacy” in epidemic numbers, and many will carry the hurt, frustration, and shame of their “inadequacy” for a lifetime. No small part of why the average adult woman has 13 thoughts of self-hate every day.

Here’s the ugly truth. Advertising’s photoshopped beauty “ideals” and standards become some little kid’s internalized expectations of what they’re supposed to look like. They see what’s false, believe it’s true, compare themselves to it, not realizing it‘s a “fantasy;” dieting, hating, and hurting themselves when they fall inevitably short of the image in the ad.

Binders full of data prove this false and unfair practice causes and contributes to an array of mental, emotional, and physical health issues, stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate, and at the most extreme end, eating disorders, which contribute to the death of more people than any other mental illness. Yes, death.

And the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves. 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 78 percent will be. When they’re adults, it’ll be 91 percent.

But despite pleas from the American Medical Association, NIH, the Eating Disorders Coalition, and tens of thousands of educators, doctors, researchers, psychologists, health care providers, parents, activists, and advocates (as well as the governments of England, France, Israel, and Australia) urging industry to act on the links between this deceptive ad practice and negative health consequences, there’s been no change, and no accountability taken for their part in either perpetuating the problem or mitigating it.

No one thinks the industry’s lobbyists, advertisers, or agencies intend to do harm. They don’t. But intentions aren’t reconciling with facts or consequences. The industry is prioritizing the well-being of advertising over that of the people they advertise to, as if suddenly unaware of their power to influence attitudes and behaviors, for good or less so.

The industry is prioritizing the well-being of advertising over that of the people they advertise to, as if suddenly unaware of their power to influence attitudes and behaviors, for good or less so.

If Barbie and the SI Swimsuit Issue understand the need to change, if ModCloth, Aerie, Badger and Winters, and even Playboy (yup) do, why doesn’t the ad industry at scale? You’ll need to ask them because I can’t get my calls returned.

Which is of course far less material than ignoring the medical community, and the abundance of cause and effect data — to say nothing of their own ethical codes (see 4As and AMA). They’re also ignoring the commercial value and rewards of owning their ethical responsibility and opportunity, and standing up for the well-being of the consumers they sell to. They could be heroes but so far are choosing not to be.

In the absence of industry self-regulation, 2 weeks ago, a concerned, bipartisan group of Congresswomen and men reintroduced The Truth In Advertising Act of 2016, (HR 4445), a bill I began championing almost 5 years ago, when first becoming aware of the data and afraid for my two small children.

The bill (TIAA) simply asks those responsible and accountable for the public health crisis caused by these ads to do more, to do something, to protect our kids and reduce the damage they’re doing — which doesn’t seem unreasonable.

The TIAA isn’t suggesting we “ban” Photoshop, nor is it concerned with ads photoshopping a blue sky bluer or cleaning up fly-away hair. It doesn’t encroach on First Amendment rights, focusing only on reducing the negative effects tied to altering and misrepresenting someone’s shape, size, proportion, color, or features beyond what makeup and lighting can do.

Now, one reason the industry may be ignoring everyone is that its principal lobbyists (the ANA, 4As, AAF, etc.) look to America’s consumer protection agency, the FTC, for guidance on both policy and potential legal, financial, and/or criminal liability (see Israel’s law and second-hand smoke litigation) that may await them and their clients for continuing a practice proven to do what this one does.

But as the lobbyists look, they find the FTC (which like many government agencies is overburdened and under-resourced) focusing on many things (like this and this), but not yet on the widespread consumer harm being done here, an egregious misplacement of priority.

Why hasn’t the Commission done something? Maybe because they’ve failed to evolve or adapt to marketplace changes, and still base their interpretations of false and unfair advertising policies and definitions on an archaic understanding of advertising, not modified since 1983.

Yes, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, Yentl was a thing, phones were neither cameras nor mobile, and Tom Cruise looked like this:

What else was a lot different 33 years ago? Advertising. But the FTC fails to recognize that today like never before, pictures are claims, and serve as cognitive shorthand for our data overload; that advertising now uses images far more than words to influence what consumers buy.

Frozen in time, the FTC continues governing a 21st-century marketplace with 20th-century policies, as if unaware of the cultural and commercial changes driven by Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, emojis, and the like. Their failure to evolve has grave consequences and is seen by some as a material breach of the agency’s fiduciary responsibility.

There’s certainly no doubt that if these same bold-faced lies were told in words, not pictures (what with pictures being worth 1000 words and all), they’d have been legislated and litigated long ago.

Are these ads really telling lies? Yes. When you say something that’s not true, that’s a lie. When you show something in an ad intended to influence behavior that’s not true, that’s a lie too. If I used George Clooney’s face on my Tinder profile that would be false and misleading, right? Right — because that’s not what I look like and not true.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask former Victoria’s Secret supermodel Erin Heatherton who said, “It feels like I look like someone else. You look better, but it’s a lie.”

Or Jennifer Lawrence, who said this upon seeing her Dior ads: “That doesn’t look like me at all. Of course it’s Photoshop. People don’t look like that.”

Or, yes, even Senator Marco Rubio, whose campaign referred earlier this week to a recently photoshopped ad by Ted Cruz as “unreal, phony, and deceitful.”

But let’s applaud Kate Winslet who put a “no-Photoshop” clause in her recent deal with L’Oreal, doing it because “we have a responsibility to the younger generation of women … I always want to be telling the truth about who I am to that generation.”

So Kate Winslet understands what the FTC fails to: Actions matter more than intentions, and kids, and the adults they’ll become, need protection from the damage this false and unfair ad practice is doing to their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Now.

We parent alongside socio-cultural influences and, absent blindfolding our children, even our best efforts can’t keep the messages these ads sell away from our kids.

Obviously, advertising is not the sole cause of these problems nor the only accountable party. Parents are always a child’s first and last lines of defense. But the truth is we don’t parent in isolation. We parent alongside socio-cultural influences and, absent blindfolding our children, even our best efforts can’t keep the messages these ads sell away from our kids.

So what can we do? With the Truth In Advertising Act’s reintroduction, we’ve never been closer to better protecting our children from the ill effects of these “photoshopped” ads. And in less than 2 minutes you can help by contacting your Congressperson, and asking them for their support.

1. Find your Representative here. Then go to the “contact” section of their website for their phone number or email.

2. Call or email them with something like this:

I live in the Congressperson’s district, and urge them to co-sponsor H.R. 4445, the bipartisan Truth In Advertising Act, because false and unfair Photoshopped ads are doing too much harm to our children’s health.

As the TIAA’s lead sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R/FL) said, “Imagine what could be accomplished if young Americans were free to focus their attention on improving the world around them rather than focusing hopelessly inward to change themselves on the basis of false and unattainable physical standards.”


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