The below video has actually been out for over a year now, but it recently experienced a resurgence through social media–particularly Facebook. As you will see from watching the video, it documents through time lapse photography the “evolution” that a relatively average looking person goes through–hair, makeup, and finally Photoshop–to go from humdrum to white hot. The video concludes with a call for disclaimers in advertisements involving body manipulation.
Now, I’ve always “known” that deep down, advertisements were creating an unrealistic image of beauty, glamour, and status. In fact, for a long time, that’s been part of the fun. But until I watched this video, I hadn’t really appreciated how far the envelope had been pushed. With advances in technology, we can now literally create something that does not exist in our physical universe and pass it off in an advertisement as an authentic article.
Of course, some level of “puffery” has always been known and tolerated in advertisements. In the verbal sense, we know that when a business claims to be “World Famous,” “World’s Best,” or “Number One,” the statement is not to be taken as a factual representation. Instead, it’s just self-laudatory mumbo jumbo easily dismissed. We’ve also accepted some level of deception in visual advertisements. Makeup is Exhibit A. (See this video showing celebrities without, and this strong-language video for a more comical take.) Images on cereal boxes have traditionally used glue or hair tonic as a stand-in for milk. And don’t get me started on fast food.
While we’ve tolerated a certain level of puffery in the past, I think we are fast approaching the line. It’s getting too real, and based on my facebook feed, there is a substantial portion of the population that simply cannot tell the difference between reality and camera tricks. People thought Kobe Bryant really risked life, limb, and millions of dollars by leaping over an Aston Martin. People believed Evan Longoria blindly caught a missile of a foul ball that was set to snuff out a reporter (as if the simple miraculousness of the act were not enough to prove it fake, what reporter and player in their right minds would conduct an interview on the foul line during batting practice with their backs to the batter?). How about using cell phones to pop popcorn? How about Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchaku? Each of these videos have four things in common: (1) they were advertisements; (2) they looked incredibly real; (3) people thought they were real; and (4) they were not real. Moreover, when you look at the comments following these videos, people not only believed they were real, but almost violently responded to challenges to their authenticity.
It used to be that people could trust their eyes. Seeing was believing. But we’ve reached the point of technological innovation where this is no longer true. Unfortunately, too much of the public (including children) have not yet realized this critical point and they continue to take visual observations at face value. As a result, we are at a point where visual content producers (like advertisers) are not merely influencing the purchase and sale of goods and services, they are influencing perceptions completely divorced from those goods and services. I’m sure some would argue that this has been going on for generations, but I would counter that today is different because: (1) we now live in a 24/7 online culture where we are essentially exposed to this stuff at all times and (2) we have only recently reached the technological threshold necessary to routinely deceive visual perception–you don’t need George Lucas’s IML, you just need a cellphone and a laptop. Thus, we have now reached the point where fiction has the potential to significantly displace reality.
With great power comes great responsibility. In my somewhat limited experience, ethics in advertising has generally received little attention. I think that needs to change. Advertisers are not merely sales people any more; they are cultural drivers, for better or for worse. I, for one, would like it to be for better.