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Reviewed By:

  • Millie Plotkin, MLS
    Millie Plotkin, MLS Link

    Millie Plotkin, MLS

    Millie Plotkin, MLS, is Informationist for Eating Recovery Center, and creator of the Eating Disorders Information Gateway ...

Review by Millie Plotkin, MLS

McBride, C., Costello, N., Ambwani, S., Wilhite, B., & Austin, S. B. (2019). Digital manipulation of images of models' appearance in advertising: strategies for action through law and corporate social responsibility incentives to protect public health. American Journal of Law & Medicine, 45(1), 7-31.

As digital manipulation of photographs in advertising has become a standard part of marketing practices, there are concerns about how these unrealistic images contribute to body dissatisfaction.

There have been several studies on the labeling photographs with disclaimers stating they have been retouched (see review by Plotkin in vol. 6 of the Eating Disorder Research Library). This article summarizes that research, but then makes a bold new suggestion of how to incentivize companies to stop digital manipulation of human models.

Several countries have created Advertising Standards Authorities (ASA) which regulate advertising across all forms of media. Theses ASAs write advertising codes which ban offensive and misleading images, as well as responding to consumer complaints. However, in the United States the First Amendment right to free speech has been seen as a barrier to laws that restrict advertising methods. Self-regulation in the American advertising industry does exist and several large national companies such as the pharmacy chain CVS and clothing retailer Target have committed themselves to using non-airbrushed images in their stores. However, participation is entirely voluntary and has yet to be adopted on a large scale. Regulation by the Federal Trade Commission has been suggested in the past, but the 2016 Truth in Advertising Act stalled in committee and has not been reintroduced. The authors of this article suggest that a voluntary certification program would be another way of encouraging participation in manipulation-free advertising.

This article discusses the use of tax incentives for companies to comply with the voluntary advertising standards. One method would be to create a tax that is in essence a fine for manipulating the weight, age, or skin color of models. Companies might be able to use the First Amendment to fight this tax, but it has yet to be tested in court. Alternatively, tax deductions could be created for the hiring of models and creation of photo layouts, as long as there is no digital manipulation involved in the advertising campaign. Both of these methods could be difficult to enforce because marketing is such a large industry, and could end up being burdensome to the Internal Revenue Service, which oversees taxation.

Why is this important?

There is a large body of research on the negative influence on print media on body image. Over the last several years, public health experts have been seeking ways to reduce digitally-manipulated images within advertising in hopes of moderate the impact on consumers. The tax incentives suggested in this article are a new tactic which has not previously been explored.

In June 2019, a bill was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature to create a tax credit as incentive for unaltered advertisements. This bill would allow for a 1% credit, up to $10k, every year for personal care, cosmetics, and apparel businesses. In order to qualify, a business would need to provide proof that they are complying with criteria created by the state Department of Revenue in consultation with the Department of Public Health. If this credit is successful, it could form a model for other states and perhaps even federal legislation.

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