Britney’s retouched photos: just part of the advertising game?

It doesn’t take a marketing professional to tell you that the hamburger in the advertisement doesn’t look exactly like the hamburger you’re going to get at the restaurant. It isn’t as big, colorful or juicy. And the woman’s hair in the shampoo commercial? She had a lot of stuff done to her hair to make it look that shiny.

This isn’t false advertising; this is “puffery,” and it’s perfectly legal. In order to make a product stand out among competition, it must be presented in the best possible light. This doesn’t mean claiming that a product does something it doesn’t really do. That’s lying. Some puffery is a necessary part of advertising.

The Huffington Post published an article on April 13, Britney Spears Reveals Unretouched Candies Ads. Look at the two before and after photos of Britney that they feature: Is this puffery? Or is this lying?

It’s puffery. It’s legal. And it’s irresponsible. Striving for unrealistic perfection in a hamburger isn’t the same as striving for unrealistic perfection of a human body.

I’ll never forget this: When I was a grad student in New York, getting an M.S. in publishing, we took a class trip to a major magazine publisher. We visited the offices of a men’s magazine and met a graphic designer who was working on the cover for the magazine’s first-ever woman of the year. She appears on the cover topless (of course).

The designer showed us the before cover and the cover he was altering. Elbow wrinkles, stomach wrinkles…all gone. The celebrity was smoothed out.

As is Britney in these ads. A commenter on the Huffington Post piece mentioned this, and it’s the first thing I noticed, too: Look how strong and muscular and sexy her calves are in the before pictures. In the after pictures, they’ve been smoothed out and elongated. What’s this obsession with smoothing out everyone?

The first thing we marketers need to do before even considering an advertising campaign is to know our audience. Let’s figure out what audience these Britney photos are for:

This advertising campaign with Britney is for Candies. Candies’ brand encompasses clothing, shoes, jewelry and accessories geared toward “juniors” and “girls.” How do we know this? The Candies line is sold at one department store exclusively; go to that department store’s Web site, and Candies is found under “juniors” and “girls.” I’d say “girls” range in age 7 to 12, and “juniors” are teenagers.

Part of knowing your audience is understanding its basic demographics; another part is understanding and discovering basic psychological stages of the target group. From the age of at least seven through at least the next 10 years, the female brain is going through a lot. We’re trying to break free, we’re trying to love, we’re trying to find ourselves, we’re trying to conform and we’re trying on different personalities until we find the right one. It’s a freak show inside our heads as our hormone levels increase, and we absorb everything, and we take it all very personally.

Bingo. We. Absorb. Everything.

In second grade, my teacher asked us to write down our New Year’s resolutions. I lost mine, apparently, but didn’t realize it. My teacher found it lying on the floor, and I hadn’t put my name on it, so in order to figure out whose it was, she read the resolutions out loud. One of my resolutions was to lose weight. I was mortified. I remember not saying anything, too embarrassed to raise my hand and claim my resolutions.

I was 7. Do we really think these self-image problems have dissipated? That we’ve become such a developed nation, with our advanced technologies and enlightenment, that we’ve solved all these problems?

I know, I know – this is an argument everyone’s heard before. It’s old news, right? I agree. Understanding and protecting your audience is a big part of corporate social responsibility. So let’s be serious about understanding our target audiences and consumer groups. Let’s work with them to form our product and product promotion around strengths and abilities, not around insecurities and wishful thinking.

And, of course, one advertising campaign can’t be wholly blamed for someone’s negative self image. In looking back at my second-grade self, I don’t recall any pop culture icons influencing my (ridiculous) idea that I needed to lose weight. The same can’t be said for all girls and especially these days: there are way more pop culture influences in 2010 than there were in 1990. We’ve even developed a word to describe this pop-culture influenced group: tweens.

But that’s the point: seeing subjects in an advertising campaign didn’t cause me to want to lose weight when I was seven years old. Something else was the influence. Was it a normal part of maturation of the female brain? Regardless, unreal images of women that young girls are being exposed to do not help with ideas and perceptions that are already present in the psyche.

So what should we do as marketers? Obviously advertising campaigns like Britney’s for Candies work: they sell products and that results in revenue. But at what cost to consumers? Do “girls” and “juniors” see Britney’s body as ideal and want to be like her at the age of 10 or 11? Is this a short-term desire that goes away as a girl ages and becomes more realistic about and comfortable with her individuality and sexuality?

Or does this puffery combine with all of the other stimulants in our society to create long-term problems for women? And will changing the way we advertise certain products help?

It couldn’t hurt.

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5 thoughts on “Britney’s retouched photos: just part of the advertising game?

  1. Rachel Buttner says:

    Great post, Abby! I saw that before and after picture of Britney, too, and I wasn’t surprised. Every image we see in media has been altered/airbrushed/what have you, and it can be very disturbing. I remember seeing (with you!) those photoshoppers in the middle of deleting fat and wrinkles at the magazine publisher, too. When you see something like that firsthand, it really hits you that you can’t believe any media image–or at least take it with a grain of salt, right? It is a concern, though, what kind of affect this has on young girls, just like you explained, Abby. How do you explain to these girls that what you see on magazine covers is not reality, and give them the confidence to not be bothered by it? How do mothers raise teenage girls these days?!

    • abbymalikpr says:

      Hey Rachel! I’m so glad you remember that, too. The thing I keep wondering is: should that graphic designer really have shown us that? Bit of a confidentiality breach, maybe??

      I have no idea how mothers raise teenager girls. Good question…most of the time we “grow out” of these superficial ideas, and sometimes we don’t…it’s a risk we’re all taking, I think.

  2. John Henry Malik says:

    Since I am an authority on everything, I would like to offer a few comments on this post.Girls/women have been victimized by the growing trend toward latent homosexuality among men in the United States, and indeed,the English speaking world.
    Latent homosexuals prefer women who look like adolescent boys: they are denying you your curves and your naturalness.This movement got underway in Hollywood (damn the media!)when motion pictures started to be made, and producers mandated that women shave their underarms and legs. Since then the trend has exploded, and,from where I sit, it’s not going to go away. Your second grade influences were not from Britney, they were a function of early-onset peer pressure, no doubt generated by the mothers of your peers, who were influenced by the growing mass of latent homosexual men.
    You are entirely right: know your market — even though it might be contrary to your good sense and good taste.

    • abbymalikpr says:

      Hey John Henry! Your take is interesting…I’m not sure if I agree completely, but that’s the point of blogs! I will say that I always find it amazing (amusing?) that drag queens never dress themselves like, say, a homely librarian stereotype. It’s always glitz, glam, heels, big breasts and a lot of make up. We all have our viewpoints of what a “ideal” woman should look like. More often than not individuals whose “ideal” female is in the minority are in positions to make decisions on behalf of a majority.

      Hmm…it would be interesting if we judged an “ideal” woman on her healthy weight (in relation to her height and bone structure), her cholesterol levels, sun damage of her skin, and lung capacity. Aren’t things like this what ultimately really determines mate selection and eventual longevity when it comes to survival?

  3. John Henry Malik says:

    Anthropologically speaking, the ideal woman is the ideal mother. All the qualities you note are included, but is she appealing enough to be mated with often enough to produce a huge family, and does she have the stamina to raise those children, who carry and potentially propagate my genetic material? Is she physically strong, does she smell good, and are her hips wide enough? One the other hand, is she a nag, is she needy, or is she a plain whacko?
    Just something to think about.

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