Why Stop at Banning Photoshopping?

by James Lileks
It’s advertising itself that’s the problem.

ABC News describes a bill thus:

A new bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives aims at curbing overzealous photoshopping of models and celebrities in advertisements.

You mean we don’t already have a Department of Zealotry Curbing? Or was it folded into the Department of Enthusiasm Diminution during the Reagan years? Anyway:

Called the ‘Truth in Advertising Act,’ the bill was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida and Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of California. Advocates for the bill want more regulation for photoshopped images that appear in advertisements and other media.

For the children, of course. Thin people in ads leads to unhealthy body images, which leads to eating disorders. Therefore, using digital manipulation to make models thinner or cover up the signs of aging simply must be regulated. What will the bill do? First, the Federal Trade Commission is commanded to form an exploratory committee to explore exploring. No later than a year and a half after the bill passes, the FTC “shall submit to Congress a report that contains a strategy to reduce the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted.”

Hmm. Well. Let’s say they want to regulate the use of the Clone Stamp Tool, which lets you alter shapes. And by “let’s say” I mean “that’s precisely what they’d have to do.” After a year and a half, they might bring forth new laws designed to make it really, really hard to use the tool:

“When applied to a human figure for purposes of commercial gain, the dimensions of the Clone Stamp Tool shall be no more than ten pixels, with opacity set at 45 percent; the computer artist, if right handed, shall be required to use his or her left hand, unless the artist is ambidextrous, in which case he will be required to use a mouse that weighs 48 pounds and cannot be moved with normal ease.”

You hate to suggest that people respond to regulations by finding a workaround, but it’s possible agencies will just hire models so thin they could be mailed across country on a first-class stamp, and hence require no alterations. Of course, under the new laws the FTC will invent, magazines and ad agencies would have to keep notarized records of their height and weight to present to the authorities — using scales whose accuracy has been verified by a state agency, of course, and carry the proper inspection stamp in a conspicuous, visible location.

Since the thin people in fashion ads will not have been digitally manipulated, this will solve the problem of eating disorders. Right? No, of course not. So we’ll have to ban the use of naturally skinny people, or people who work out a lot, and this will solve the problem of unnatural-looking physiques. Right? No, of course not; the fashion mags would switch to digital illustration that bypasses the need for actual people entirely, and then Congress would have to pass a law banning pictures of nonexistent people who are too slender, possibly calling it the “Fictional Twiggy Prevention Act of 2016.”

That’ll work. Right? No? Well, they’ll change the culture’s perceptions of beauty by force of law somehow. Won’t be easy. You’re talking at least 36 months to figure that one out.

In the meantime, we can address other problems that distort reality: fast food, for example, is always shown in its most perfect, succulent form — the bun is a dome that puts the perfection of the Hagia Sophia to shame, the lettuce is crisp and glistening, the tomato is ripe and red with an almost shameless sensuality, the meat is a divot of such tempting juicy perfection that your salivary glands turn into firehoses. What you actually get looks like a horse stepped on it.

If the food in the ads looked like the food you get, people would eat less. But there would still be the problem of attractive lighting, which is another form of lying. The ads show the burger bathed in bright light, the sesame seeds winking like diamonds in the noonday sun; since most are eaten in the tenebrous gloom of a car, the ads should be dark, without sufficient light to highlight any cozening details. Ideally the ads should consist of a pile of defecatory remains, since that is what it will become in the end, so to speak, and also contain a picture of a slaughterhouse floor to remind you of the process that brought the food to your hand.

But this still doesn’t address the real problem, does it? Advertising is the problem. Advertising holds up images of some ideal we cannot achieve, and thus causes aspiration, which ends in misery. Who among us hasn’t watched TV for half an hour, studied the ads like the revelatory playlets they are, then left the house to eat fried chicken, enlist in the Marines, buy a $47,999 car, and ask our doctor whether Vilevria is right for us? It’s all I can do after seeing an Oil of Olay ad to keep from running up to my wife’s drawer of potions, slathering the stuff on my face, and shouting HURRY UP AND DEFY THE RAVAGES OF TIME at my reflection. Ads are not suggestions. These are marching orders beamed directly into our quivering id, and we’ve no defense against them.

So we need to change the entire advertising paradigm: Companies will be permitted to show a picture of the product, and a monotone voice will describe its attributes as determined by an impartial board empowered to strike out any language that suggests that the consumption of this taco has any nominal advantage over the consumption of any other taco. The company will be allowed to assert that the “Mucho Fiero Grande” sauce has a more substantial “kick” than the competitor, based on lab analysis of the capsaicin content measured in Scoville units.

But that still leaves movies. In the motion pictures, pretty people do amazing things and speak lines that are not representative of modern life, and that makes your life look empty and ugly. We cannot ban beautiful people right away, but before the movie starts, the screen can impart some necessary facts that remind the viewer of the statistical rarity of looking like Miranda Kerr without surgical enhancement, three hours on the treadmill every morning, and subsisting on a diet that consists of licking water off lettuce.

There will be a fictional exception for Thor, who is a Norse God and hence not intended to be indicative of normative muscle-to-fat ratios in humans, but the film will begin with an admonition that the physical archetypes contained in this photoplay are not intended to influence one’s own self-image. Attainment of visible abdomen muscles is possible only through a strict regimen of diet and exercise. Consult your doctor before embarking on any fitness program. Shoulder width and pectoral mass are often a result of genetic inheritance, and failure to attain Thor-like dimensions should not be seen as a factor of self-worth.

If the movies say this right up front, then we will believe them. If the ads are truthful and reflect reality as we see it all the time, then we will trust them. It’ll be easier than having conversations with your kids and monitoring what media they consume. If you do have that conversation, though, remember how it goes: Love yourself for what you are. Be happy with who you are. Don’t judge yourself by what other people think is beautiful.

Now, put on your shoes and go running, because the First Lady thinks kids are too fat. She hates that.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

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