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Buyer beware!

Following the recent ban of an advertisement for anti-wrinkle cream for misleading imagery, Emer Sugrue looks at the role imagery plays in advertising.

Every year advertisers get more skilled at saying nothing. They have long since learned that making specific claims can only lead to trouble – an ad for Johnson & Johnson’s RoC Complete Lift was banned for claims that its effectiveness was ‘clinically proven’ when it was discovered that the ‘trial’ had just forty-one participants and a survey – and so instead, they depend on nonsense phrases and meaningless assurance. Recently however, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has been cracking down even further and tackling the issue of the misleading imagery that more or less defines modern advertising. Earlier this month L’Oreal came under fire for their anti-wrinkle cream ad featuring English actress Rachel Weisz looking wrinkle-free and glowing. Too glowing, as it turns out, as the actress had been heavily photoshopped. Following the ruling, an ASA spokesman released a statement explaining that the “image had been altered in a way that substantially changed her complexion to make it appear smoother and more even. We therefore concluded that the image in the ad … misleadingly exaggerated the performance of the product in relation to the claims ‘skin looks smoother’ and ‘complexion looks more even.’”

Of course the Advertising Standards Agency’s job is to investigate complaints about the accuracy of ads, but do these standards go too far? Yes, the forty-something Rachel Weisz appeared with a face so smoothed back that she looked like she was accelerating at 200 kilometres an hour, but the ad was not in any way a lie. The vague promises of smoother skin and even complexion are true. They are actually true of any moisturiser, regardless of cost. All moisturisers serve the same function and there is little to no evidence that those specifically promoted as anti-aging have any extra effect. But the ad didn’t claim that it was better than other moisturisers, just that it was good. Often these ads back this up with a survey showing that eighty per cent of the women they gave some free face cream to thought it was great. It’s meaningless, but not false.

The majority of advertisements are either bland statements of fact or suggestive promises pasted over aspirational imagery. Perfume ads are the best example of the trend. Not one perfume ad mentions what the product supposed to smell like. Instead they are a montage of aspiration and wish fulfilment. Men’s ads feature aloof, handsome, mysteriously shirtless men with just the right amount of stubble finding stunning women throwing themselves at their feet. Women’s ads show models draped in silk with said aloof shirtless men in an agony of love, lust, angst and whatever other sexy emotions the Twilight series have popularised, and you could have this life too if only you gave Calvin Klein your money. Could this sort of advertising be banned by the ASA? The imagery is definitely misleading. All a purely factual ad can promise is that if you buy this bottle of smell, you will smell like this smell.

But don’t we know all this? We have been exposed to advertising since we were infants being raised by our square luminous parent, television. We live in the real world; we know that these things aren’t true. There are too many years of eventually buying the toy you so desperately yearned for and finding out that it didn’t really fly. Drinking a bottle of coke and discovering that instead of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, all it did was make you need a wee. Realising that Frosties being “Gr-r-reat!” is more of an opinion than a fact. While advertising makes us spend money on underwhelming products, it also teaches us a valuable lesson: scepticism.

By the time you are an adult you should know that what advertisements promise are impossibilities. They don’t just promise a smell or food or an item of clothing; they promise to make you the person you want to be. They are selling ‘cool’. We want the lifestyle of the ad, not the product. The reason they don’t attempt to explain what the perfume smells like is that it doesn’t matter. No cologne is going to turn you into Matthew McConaughey, and no moisturiser is going to make you look like Rachel Weisz. Even Rachel Weisz doesn’t look like Rachel Weisz, so you have no chance. And if you’ve reached the stage of needing anti-aging cream without realising this, then you deserve to lose your money on pointless products. Consider it a tax on the gullible.