The ethics of photoshop


H&M have just attracted criticism for the use of virtual models to demonstrate their clothes. It's just the most recent of a series of such stories, and it shows how society is grappling with the implications of technology and trying to work out what is - or is not - acceptable.

The initial unease with the use of Photoshop in advertising arose from the routine processing done to photos of models to make them into idealised distortions of what any human being can expect to look like.

The case was popularised some years ago when Unilever's Dove first introduced its 'Campaign for Real Beauty' and showed its powerful video illustrating all the things that happen in the course of making a model photoshoot.

One might argue that the H&M example goes further. The body of the models is not based on a real person at all. The clothes are placed on a dummy, and the Photoshop artists create a realistic looking body and then attach a real models face to it, adjusting the skin tone to match her complexion.

I looked at these images, and I must confess I didn't have a problem with them. For me, the test comes on whether the technology is being used to give a misleading impression about the product or whether it is promoting unrealistic expectations of what somebody's body should look like.

The body generated by the Photoshop artists isn't fat, for sure. You would be surprised if it was. But it isn't 'super-skinny' either. At least, no-one was calling that one before they noticed the Photoshop involvement.

The clothes are pretty straight-forwardly seen, and not misrepresented in any way. I couldn't see any particular difference between showing the clothes this way and having them on a dummy in store.

In some ways, I think H&M missed a trick. Why not make a virtue out of the use of the technology, by inviting you to choose a model whose appearance and body type is closest to your own, so you can get a good sense of how the clothes would look on you? Nobody would find that ethically objectionable, presumably, even though it would explicitly use the same technology.

Procter & Gamble showed recently how easy it is to cross the line however with its Covergirl advert - banned after complaints - for mascara where the model's eyelashes were digitally enhanced. Even though the ad included small print to admit that the photo had been retouched, this crossed the line because it gave a visually powerful misleading impression about the product.

I'm not particularly convinced that it was done with malicious intent - it's just a reflection of how practice that has become very standard and automatic with digital artists is only now beginning to bump up against some key ethical questions.

But I'm pretty amazed that no-one in the company foresaw problems with an advert promising benefits that it admits in the small print don't accord with what's on show. You ask yourself how dumb you would have to be not to notice that's a problem. Maybe the people who approve the ads don't read the small print.

Bloomingdales also showed how absurd the Photoshop meddling can become, when a picture of one of its models appeared to have no pelvis at all.

The routine use of digital post-production techniques will lead to more such stories. Even though some people will see controversy in every use - as in the H&M case - the key rules are as straightforward as (1) Don't use the technology to give misleading impressions about the product and (2) Keep it healthy. We know you want beautiful images - just think about the consequences of the vision of beauty you may be promoting.

These are not particularly difficult or sophisticated criteria, you would think.

Posted on: 2 Jan 2012

Tags: H&M Photoshop responsible marketing Procter & Gamble size zero models


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