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Psychiatrists' call for honesty in advertising

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Will Gompertz | 11:13 UK time, Thursday, 25 February 2010

This "before and after" is well-known: it's two versions of Keira Knightley in publicity shots for the 2004 film King Arthur.

Some of the "enhancements" are more obvious than others; I counted eight. But if the Royal Society of Psychiatrists had its way, there would be another, much more obvious difference.

RCPsych Eating Disorders Section: Statement on the influence of the media on eating disordersIn a statement published this week, the college calls for a "kite mark" to be added to all images that have been digitally enhanced or airbrushed. They think that distorting images distorts our minds - particularly the minds of those who might be prone to eating disorders or to feeling down because their body doesn't quite match up to Naomi's, Kate's, Sienna's and so on. Or to Brad's and so on, for that matter.

According to some in the advertising world, that would mean putting a kite mark on every poster. Better perhaps for a kite mark to be applied to those ads that have not been digitally enhanced or airbrushed. After all, isn't advertising all about selling dreams? Is it not part of the human condition to aspire? It's no coincidence that several notable movie directors have come from working in advertising. Both jobs involve fictions and expertise in story-telling.

Film Avatar and ad for Nancy LamThe difference, of course, is that when we go to watch a film, we know that it is make-believe: that's generally the attraction. Adverts, by contrast, suggest that by consuming the featured products or services it is possible that the perfect life set out in the poster could be ours.

The question is: does society still want to continue to see these aspirational images of sandy beaches, brilliant white teeth and perfect bodies, and treat them as a form of escapism? Or do we want to be awoken from the advertisers' dreams and have a kite mark explicitly pointing out the fakery?


  • Comment number 1.

    if the Royal Society of Psychiatrists had its way ?

    I'd say the Royal Society of Psychiatrists has had its day. This is insane. Anyone inclined to believe anything in an advert won't take not of a logo stuck in a corner.

  • Comment number 2.

    Wherever there are people doing things, someone will come along and tell them how to do it.

  • Comment number 3.

    I don't think there's any harm in the aspirational imagery used in commercials.

    I spent 20 years working for big agencies, both in the UK and US, and I always believed that advertisers and their agents go into so many peoples' lives uninvited, and so often, that they have a duty to try and make viewers' lives a little richer and not rot their brains. Unfortunately, as we see on our screens every evening, the vast majority or advertising is neither entertaining or memorable.

    As with politics, anybody who believes that what an advertisement says is 100% correct is an idiot. I think most people know this. But so long as everything advertisers produce is "legal, decent, honest and truthful", I don't think there's any harm in a little exaggeration of certain aspects.

    If we are looking for something to criticize, far better to look at the rise in the number of commercial messages that use vulgarity to get their message across. The last dozen years or so have seen an alarming change in what is considered acceptable, and the nexus seems to have been Campaign Magazine's shameful decision to name the French Connection UK campaign its "Campaign of the Year". Legendary adman David Abbott was one of the few dissenting voices, and his observation - that putting the company's name as an acronym on posters in letters six feet high where every 8 year old can see it was "(insert filtered word here) -ing ridiculous" - holds true today. Sorry if that seems unclear, but your filter won't allow me to type the actual name of the campaign. Oh, the irony.

    Advertising is not about reality. Nothing drives as fast, or tastes as good, or works as well as the commercials would imply. At the same time, there has to be a degree of oversight to ensure that in the rush to entertain, inform and persuade, advertisers do not cross the line into the genuinely untrue. And in many cases it's a very fine line. But if realism is the standard to which we are going to hold commercials, then what a dingy, vulgar and run-of-the-mill world it will become.

  • Comment number 4.

    The question makes me question whether I need adverts at all and the answer is probably not. If I want to buy anything or go somewhere, I usually google for reviews and opinions. Most of these visual adverts are annoying or eyesores.

    As we have them I don't think a kite-mark would make much difference. I think much of the potency here is subliminal. It's subtle (I counted 10 differences but wouldn't have bothered if you hadn't suggested it). Adverts directly aimed at products shouldn't be harmful or dishonest but whether this means only the absolute truth, I don't know that it should. Anyway, we all know the camera lies. It's a terrible instrument for telling the truth.

  • Comment number 5.

    "This "before and after" is well-known: it's two versions of Keira Knightley in publicity shots for the 2004 film King Arthur."

    Better examples could have been chosen to argue the point than an advertisment for a film...

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    A talented makeup artist and costume designer can dramatically change the way a model or actress looks, not to mention the difference lighting and camera angle can make, But there won't be a kite logo to warn people of that, will there! So why is it necessary when digital retouching is involved??

  • Comment number 8.

    As much psychiatry is based on dubious assumptions and carefully chosen 'evidence' this seems to be a case of pots calling kettles black.

  • Comment number 9.

    Psychiatrists call for honesty in advertising. May I add my voice.
    If the Royal Society of Psychiatrists had its way, there would be a "kite mark" added to all images that have been digitally enhanced or airbrushed; if I had my way, false or enhanced avertisements would be subject to fines and/or prosecutions.
    Psychiatrists think that distorting images distorts our minds; I agree. The constant bombartment of ridiculous claims, enhanced images, lies and more lies can make us deluded, if not totally crazy - crazy for the advertised products, for the promoted body image and the clothes to put upon that body...CRAZY!
    Where the Royal Soceity of Psychiatrists goes wrong is with its little “kite mark”. Was this perhaps some kind of Freudian slip?
    If I had my way, advertising would have to be honest - no artifical enhancements, no glowing testimonies (unless they're true) – in short, no more propaganda.
    Isn't advertising all about selling dreams?
    No, not in my book. In my book advertising exists to inform me about products – their availability, their capability, what makes them different from other products that perform similar functions.
    Advertising is not there to create artificial demand and make me want and want and want – when actually I don’t need the product at all.
    So, Royal Society of Psychiatrists: you have not gone far enough. You are THE organization to speak about the crazy-making propensities of artificial, commercial advertising; so, stop with the little kite and get with a major promotion of your stance.
    The number of false advertising lawsuits is climbing dramatically, along with the dollar amounts being awarded in these cases.
    So, folks, if you are not seeing a psychiatrist (or even if you are), the very first thing you should do once you feel taken-in by an advertisement is:
    Contact the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) with as much detail of the advertisement as you can provide, a copy if possible, details of where and when it appeared, and the reasons you believe the advert is misleading. ASA reviews all complaints, but will refer broadcast complaints (TV, radio, satellite) to The Office of Communications (OFCOM).
    In this case like so many others, if you are not part of the solution, you are really part of the problem.
    And oh yes, if you are seeing a psychiatrust, make sure to tell your psychiatrist; this advertising crap may be part of your craziness.

  • Comment number 10.

    Oh dear, the politically correct police are gonna getcha!

    Where does this end? How about a kite mark on every piece of fiction indicating that the depiction of reality, be it written, spoken or visual, has been enhanced to allow for artistic license? What about all those 'biographies' and 'true story' films? How about a kite mark on washing machines, dishwashers, PC's etc. to say they don't work as fast etc. as in the adverts?

    If a human being can't tell reality from fiction, or indeed that Keira Knightly, beautiful as she is, is as flat as a pancake in real life, does a kite mark make them any more enlightened? I for one certainly don't believe that burly men go around impersonating women and do housework with a single sheet of implausibly strong paper - kite mark or no kite mark.

  • Comment number 11.

    Ad-men often talk about creativity and making life more interesting. Like everything they say and do this is disingenuous.

    In reality advertisers are a cynical and manipulative bunch who play on peoples' anxieties and insecurities in order to flog their snake-oil. They thrive and multiply in our uncertain era.

    Anyone who has seen or worked with anorexics and bulimics knows well the part played by aspirational imagery in these unfortunate peoples' emotional disorder. I invite anyone who denies this to visti their local psychiatric ward and talk to some of the patients.

    These measures will not curb the effects of advertising.

    All I can say to the advertising community is this: the issues these psychiatrists raise are very real; it is up to you to accept this and live with it on your consciences.

  • Comment number 12.

    I think this is a great idea, and can't see why so many people are whining about this. I honestly have to wonder what their professional motivations are in posting with such an offended tone.
    I am for more honest adverts.
    My only logistical concern in this entire scheme is that a kite can't precisely indicate exactly what has been modified within the advert.
    Wouldn't it lose some of its efficacy? A solution would need to be found, and that might be difficult.

  • Comment number 13.

    An interesting idea, especially in light of recently attempted lawsuits against websites such as which have in the past pointed out when publicity shots have been digitally manipulated.
    It's is not in the interest of advertising companies to have a mark on their adverts specifically stating that the lifestyle or imagery they are trying to portray is unrealistic or unattainable. Of course there will be strenuous objections to such a proposal.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    The point is that actors are people too. To pick on one in particular and use their image to make the point that most images are photoshopped to 'improve' them is unfair. Why did Will Gompertz not choose an image of a hotel for example with the building works removed?(even a fictitious one.) Why choose a living actor? (and indirectly subject them to ridicule!) And why is he them not prepared to suffer the same fate himself!

  • Comment number 16.

    To say "anybody who believes that what an advertisement says is 100% correct is an idiot" is naive. It is fair to say that the majority of people consciously realise that adverts are manipulated. The issue is that modern advertising is fed to us in such massive quantities and such a wide variety of ways, many extremely subtle, that we don't tend to think about the adverts too much, and as a result we don't filter and consider the information in a conscious manner a lot of the time.

    The result this is that we're subconsciously and continuously being bombarded with images of lifestyles that we cannot possibly attain. This is damaging and, I believe, plays a part in all sorts of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and anorexia.

  • Comment number 17.

    The kite mark is a great idea. Airbrushed images aren't the real world. Too much pressure on people.


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