The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) have published an update statement concerning the use of digitally altered images in advertising. This follows their interim statement in November 2022 and their earlier call for evidence, both of which were in the context of a broader review of body image portrayal within advertising.
Although the full report on body image portrayal is not expected to be published until Spring 2024, this update gives a useful insight into the latest developments in the specific policy area of digitally altered images.
There is increased scrutiny of the potential harms caused by negative body image portrayal in advertising, including through digitally altered images. This concern is considered increasingly pertinent in an age where products are often promoted by social media influencers, particularly in the beauty and cosmetics industry. Digitally altered adverts posted by influencers arguably pose a greater risk of harm, as there is a perception that these images are more 'real'.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) will already take action where it considers an advert to be misleading or irresponsible, consistent with the existing protections in the CAP and BCAP Codes, which both include a requirement that "Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society". For example, the ASA has upheld complaints against adverts featuring models who were depicted as being unhealthily underweight and which suggested such physicality is glamourous or desirable (see the ASA guidance here). This review is intended to establish whether further preventative action is needed.
The update reports on a roundtable discussion which took place in June 2023 bringing together stakeholders representing a range of expertise and backgrounds including the advertising industry, media platforms, academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and policy makers. The stakeholders discussed:
- the extent to which advertising contributes to body image related harms through the use of digitally altered images;
- the groups of people who are particularly vulnerable to such harms; and
- the potential measures that could mitigate these harms.
There was reported to be wide consensus that there are significant concerns surrounding the use of digital alteration techniques in images, particularly on social media, giving rise to body image harms. Children and young people were identified as particularly susceptible to the risks of negative body image portrayal.
In terms of potential mitigating measures, the roundtable considered the following:
- prohibiting the digital alteration of images in advertisements;
- introducing a requirement to label advertisements in which body parts or proportions have been digitally altered (similar to existing requirements in Norway, France and Israel);
- implementing an evidence standard based on open-source data to give effect to proposal 2 above; and
- introducing threshold-based digital alteration restrictions which prohibit the use of significantly altered images which perpetuate body image harms, for example relating to weight and age.
According to the update statement, many stakeholders cautioned that careful consideration must be given to any proposed mitigation measures to avoid unintended consequences and disproportionate effects. It was agreed there are complexities in relation to a range of issues, from practical to principled, such as:
- how images may have been altered and the different ways in which viewers may be exposed to such images across forms of media other than advertising;
- the various purposes for which image editing techniques are used generally, including many which are unrelated to body image and beauty portrayal, such as for comedic or horror effects;
- how digital alteration would be defined and assessed under any proposed restrictions;
- the extent to which the harmful impact from digitally altered body parts or proportion in images can be attributed to advertising, in comparison to editorial content; and
- the risk of restrictive interventions (such as a total prohibition on digital alterations in certain contexts, or a requirement to label digitally altered images) causing harm to those featured in the adverts, for example by impacting the mental wellbeing of social media influencers or even encouraging them to resort to cosmetic interventions, which could perpetuate further harms on their followers.
The roundtable also considered the extent to which the advertising industry has taken voluntary action already, for example by refusing to work with influencers who digitally alter body parts or proportions in their images, or by actively promoting diverse body image portrayal in advertising.
CAP and BCAP identified the following next steps following the stakeholder discussion.
- to determine whether the existing protections in the CAP and BCAP codes, and the ASA's application of those codes, adequately address the potential harms arising from digitally altered body parts and proportions depicted in advertising.
- to convene a further roundtable, this time involving children and young people, to help in determining point 1 above. We understand that this took place in October 2023 and a report is expected in Spring 2024.
- to conduct engagement with members of the advertising industry to facilitate wider considerations of industry initiatives intended to address potential harms arising from digitally altered body parts and proportions depicted in advertising.
In relation to point 1, CAP and BCAP confirmed in the update statement that they do not, at present, consider the introduction of a labelling scheme to be appropriate. In support of this view, they referred to evidence showing that labels and disclaimers which disclose digital alteration may be ineffective and could in fact be detrimental to viewers, by drawing further attention to the altered body parts in the images.
In considering further mitigating measures such as restricting or prohibiting digitally altered images altogether, CAP and BCAP acknowledge that particular depictions of bodies in adverts could equally result in detrimental effects on body image perceptions, even where those images have not been digitally altered (for example, where the person depicted is naturally very slim).
The update statement emphasises the action that has been taken by ASA under the current regulatory regime.
CAP and BCAP are clearly giving serious consideration to the use of digitally altered images in advertisements. However, it is not yet clear what measures, if any, they will implement to address this issue beyond the protections that are already in place.
Pending further clarification, beauty and cosmetics brands should continue to be mindful of their advertising practices and ensure that any digital alterations made to body images in their advertisements do not leave them susceptible to being labelled as misleading or irresponsible.