Expert's Opinion

Beauty Advertising Images Cannot Misrepresent Product Benefits

By: Annie M.

Beauty Advertising Images Cannot Misrepresent Product Benefits

Images must not misrepresent product benefits. Filtered images or post-production editing that alters the consumer’s understanding of product benefits is misleading if the result is not achievable in real-world product use.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook researchers were aware that a sizable percentage of their users, most notably teenage girls, suffer from body image issues because of using Instagram.
Specifically, they cited that “thirty-two percent of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

Filtering—today’s digital airbrushing—can enhance complexions and help users look thinner or younger. Social media and virtual meeting platforms have made airbrushing mainstream, helping individuals smooth the appearance of wrinkles and brighten their appearance on conference calls.

As noted by Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychologist, we have gone from comparing ourselves to models on a beauty magazine cover to comparing ourselves “to our airbrushed peers, and our airbrushed selves.” But what happens when those filters, used to enhance the appearance of a social media influencer, are also helping sell a beauty product? The answer is that consumers may be misled that the product is able to do what the filter is doing.

Filters can have a negative effect on one's self-image.
In an ad, images must not misrepresent the product benefits. Using great lighting and high-quality cameras in cosmetics advertising to improve the look of photos is a perfectly fine tactic. On the other hand, using a filtered image or post-production editing that alters the consumer’s understanding of the product’s benefits is misleading if the result is not achievable in real-world use of the product. Enhancing images or video to alter how the product performs is the same as manipulating a product demonstration. Once manipulated, the demonstration is no longer consistent with what consumers can achieve when they use the product.

In the US, altering product demonstrations or images to enhance product performance in advertising is not only misleading, but is also against the law. To come into compliance, in some cases, advertisers must discontinue the advertisements with the alterations, while in other cases an advertiser may be required to include a disclosure clearly indicating that the product performance was enhanced. 

Mascara or Lash Inserts?
For example, several years ago the BBB National Programs’ National Advertising Division, the advertising self-regulatory body in the US, explained that advertising for mascara that used altered images to enhance the volume of lashes misled consumers about the performance benefits of the mascara. Using post-production techniques to thicken the appearance of lashes was discontinued, and the advertiser was required to include a disclosure that lash inserts were used to increase the length and volume of the depicted lashes.

Brands engage influencers to sell products because they tell their story and show how products, including cosmetics, are used and enjoyed. Using filters to exaggerate a cosmetic’s benefits does not tell an authentic story, but a pretend story, one that may be harming the self-esteem and mental health of teenage girls.

UK Filter Ban
Earlier this year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the use of filters in ads for Skinny Tan Ltd. and We Are Luxe Ltd. The banned ads featured Instagram stories by influencers who were promoting tanning products but used beauty filters that altered their skin tone and complexion to make them appear darker than they would without the filters. The ASA advised the influencers “not to apply beauty filters to photos which promoted beauty products if such filters were likely to exaggerate the effect the product was capable of achieving.”

Brands should stop using filters in social media marketing that misrepresent product performance or, if they use a filter, clearly and conspicuously disclose that such filters were used. The UK’s ASA has advised that brands should “clarify in their commercial agreements with influencers their responsibilities when marketing cosmetic products on social media and advise them against the use of beauty filters if they are likely to exaggerate the efficacy of the advertised product.”

US Influencers Disclosures
Here in the US, if an influencer is using filters that misrepresent what a product can do, the influencer should clearly and conspicuously disclose their use so that beauty-conscious consumers can understand that what they are seeing is not attributable to the product itself, but instead to the image enhancements.

Cosmetics once advertised images of perfection and promoted their use to avoid plastic surgery or other expensive and invasive beauty procedures. Today, cosmetics marketing programs that use influencers and filters are driving young women to consider plastic surgery (rather than avoid it) to achieve the idealized looks. Brands must consider the risks when they or their influencers use filters. Not only can the filters promote false images of perfection in an age where most social interactions and engagement are taking place on social media, but when used in advertising, they risk misleading a consumer about a product’s performance and put the advertiser at legal risk. 

Annie M. Ugurlayan
Assistand Director, NAD
Deputy Director, NARB
Annie M. Ugurlayan is an assistant director at the National Advertising Division (NAD) and deputy director at the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) of the BBB National Programs. She joined NAD in 2003 and handles a wide variety of cases and has successfully argued appeals before the National Advertising Review Board. Ugurlayan oversees case management, NAD’s monitoring cases, and advises first-time participants on the NAD Procedures and process. She has been NAD’s liaison to the local Better Business Bureaus. Ugurlayan is also a frequent lecturer at conferences nationwide and abroad, particularly on cosmetics advertising on which has developed an expertise. She became Deputy Director at the NARB in 2019. Ugurlayan oversees administrative matters including scheduling of appeals and issues relating to panel members. She also drafts NARB compliance decisions on behalf of the NAD.

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