TIME Congress

Lobbyists Push Congress to Curb Misleading Photoshopped Ads

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. speaks at a news conference, March 20, 2012.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif. speaks at a news conference, March 20, 2012. Tom Williams—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Fashion and beauty ads where the physical appearance of subjects is dramatically altered can have a dire effect on the health outcomes of young people, say anti-eating disorder groups. A bill introduced last month could prompt the FTC to investigate

Lobbyists concerned with the way digitally altered advertisements impact young women and girls took to Capitol Hill on Thursday to rally support for a new bill.

Members of the Eating Disorders Coalition met with over 50 lawmakers about the Truth in Advertising Act of 2014, introduced on March 27, which they say could prompt the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the impact digitally retouched images have on society.

Seth Matlins, a marketer who works to promote positive images of women and girls, said Thursday he’s concerned about “ads that take Kim Kardashian’s body and make it Miley Cyrus’s.”

“If photoshopped ads told the same bold-faced lies that they do on images there would be regulatory action,” Matlins said during a briefing on the lobbying effort. “Truth in advertising matters because we can no longer sit by and allow this to happen.”

The problem for the Eating Disorders Coalition isn’t the ads themselves; it’s the altered images the ads present. The group handed out before and after images of advertisements from fashion houses like Ralph Lauren and Lancôme that they claimed showed the insidious effect of digital alterations. Speakers, who included a former Photoshop professional who referred to himself as an “eye-con,” told personal stories of how altered images had affected people around them.

Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the new bill, said during the briefing that as a mother and as a school nurse in her home state she had seen the impact altered fashion ads can have on young girls. She acknowledged the bill faced an uphill battle to gain widespread support in today’s Congress, but said there was a historical precedent for action.

“Just as with cigarette ads in the past, fashion ads portray a twisted, ideal image for young women,” she said. “And they’re vulnerable. As sales go up, body image and confidence drops.”

The Eating Disorders Coalition claims the bill is a great first step to preventing some of the negative health outcomes that have been directly linked to these types of images. Though the new bill would not force the Federal Trade Commission to take direct action against advertisers, the federal government would study the use of images where subjects’ physical attributes had been tweaked in order to pursue recommendations on what should be done about it.

Several research studies have found that higher exposure to beauty and fashion magazines increase the likelihood that young girls will develop negative body image and eating disorders. In one study, young girls in Fiji had already begun to develop eating disorders and body image issues only three years after western TV was introduced there.

“The link between false ads and eating disorders becomes increasingly clear every day,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the new bill. “We need to instead empower young men and women to have realistic expectations of their bodies.”

But the Federal Trade Commission already has the authority to keep “unfair and deceptive” commerce away from consumers, and Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers says the federal government already has more than enough power to protect vulnerable communities from false ads. He argues the law as it stands is actually too broad and that eliminating the use of photoshop would be going too far.

“The use of cosmetics and photoshop are widespread practices,” Jaffe says. “It can’t just be the photoshopping that they go after, it would have to be tied to something specific. Are you just going to say that when ever someone photoshops it’s a per se violation? I think that would be going too far.”

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