Manipulative Advertising

When photography was first invented, people believed that what they saw on the image was the most accurate and realistic portrayal of reality. They believed it to be “the truth”. Nowadays people will think twice before they believe anything portrayed on a photo or billboard. Photoshop makes it possible to alter something that is “normal” and change it into something that is more pleasing to the eye. You could even create entirely new things with Photoshop. With today’s technology, people can do literally anything they want with images. How can anyone believe what he sees anymore?

Manipulating images that are to be seen in commercials or on billboards have reached the point where it becomes unethical and give people a distorted view of reality. Due to this manipulation a conflict arises between ethics and aesthetics and how these two are used in advertisements. Ethics are a set of rules that define what is thought of the be good and bad, whilst aesthetics deals with the nature of beauty, taste and things that are pleasing in appearance.

The problem that has occurred is that there is almost no limit to what man is capable of doing to an image, even though many things are done to images with the best intentions. The major issue here is when does the pursuit of aesthetics exceed our ethics? When people go to the movies, they can see aliens or dinosaurs that appear almost real. In this situation it does not matter when the film is digitally altered because people expect it. When looking at an advertisement, however, people expect to see the truth and they will feel betrayed or fooled when it does not portray a real image.

The difficult question to many people is ‘how far is too far?’. It is very difficult to say so since there is not just black and white. There is an immense grey area in between with a lot of controversial topics. Enhancing a faint detail in the original image to make it more visible, or more aesthetically appealing, is ethically acceptable. Adding something that was not there in the first place is not. Even here it is difficult to say how much is too much. In 2006 Cosmetics company Dove made an eye-opening commercial that shows how easy it is to enhance an advertisement and to send out a misleading message to the public, called ‘The evolution of beauty’.

Unfortunately this happens far too much, especially in the cosmetics industry. Because only the most perfect models are portrayed on advertisements, ‘normal’ people are lead to believe that that is the way to look. Especially the younger generations, girls in particular, are easily influenced by these ads. They do not know what is ‘normal’ anymore and the only way to look perfect is to be super skinny. This issue is ethically challenging and many people think it should be dealt with. However, aesthetically speaking people do find it pleasing and they prefer seeing perfect supermodels to ordinary looking people that resemble the average girl next door more. Yet another difficult matter in the battle for ethical acceptability.

Manipulative advertising is wrong. It only becomes a question of ethics, and therefore a problem, when there has been lied about the motivations and if images are being portrayed with the purpose to intentionally deceive. What is important is the motivation. Why are certain things done? Are they done to deceive people? Most advertisements are altered to become visually more interesting, not to deceive the customers. Most of the time people are just trying to make a better picture. Just as a writer may enhance his stories with metaphors and adjectives, photographers and the people behind advertisements try to enhance their images with digital techniques and color enhancement.

Luckily today most advertisers strive to achieve and maintain fair ethical standards and practice socially responsible advertising. Employees of an advertisement company are rarely forced to work on accounts they morally oppose. To protect the consumer, the advertising industry has become a heavily regulated profession. Many laws, regulations and regulatory bodies have been created so far. Advertising now is being reviewed, controlled and modified by governments and consumer groups in order to stop manipulative and deceptive ads.