CVS recently announced it’ll begin including a watermark in ads to identify which images haven’t been digitally altered, and it’ll ask the brands it sells to do the same. The thinking behind the measure is that digitally altered images can encourage people to have an unrealistic body image, which “is a significant driver of health issues,” according to Helena Foulkes, who leads CVS’ retail business.
If you had to guess, which of these media outlets would tend to distort the information more when reporting on a story like this: two prominent newspapers, a women’s magazine or a lifestyle media publisher?
Turns out it’s a newspaper. The New York Times’ article was the most distorted of the four outlets we analyzed, followed by PopSugar. The least distorted article came from Glamour, believe it or not, and The Wall Street Journal followed in second place. Here’s a snapshot of what we found.
Say what?The New York Times related CVS’ measure to the “#metoo movement,” which seeks to expose sexual assault and harassment. Here’s the headline and lead sentence:
Airbrushing Meets the #MeToo Movement. Guess Who Wins.
The galvanization of women, whether as candidates for political office or as voices speaking up as part of the #metoo movement, has challenged yet another traditionally sacred practice: the airbrushing of beauty images into unachievable perfection.What do the two things have to do with each other? We’re not entirely sure. Is the paper suggesting women are being victimized by digitally altered images? Or that this change at CVS will empower women? The reasoning behind either message is questionable, which brings us to the following point.
Are the images the problem?Most people would probably agree that digitally altered images don’t accurately depict reality (if in doubt, watch this 2013 report by ABC News). Probably most would also agree that children and teenagers could be more susceptible to believing those images are real. But are these images causing people’s insecurities? The Times seems to suggest so.
Starting in April, the photographs women see when they go to buy a CVS brand lipstick or perfume or moisturizer will not have been so smoothed, color-corrected or otherwise remastered as to produce overwhelming insecurity in the shopper.Does everyone respond to these images with “overwhelming insecurity”? No, and it isn’t logical to suggest the images “produce” insecurity.
It seems the problem that leads people to develop body image issues may rest on faulty reasoning and discernment. A person, for instance, may incorrectly assume an altered image is real, and that’s one problem. The more serious issue comes when the person adopts the apparent standard and believes he or she must look the same way, or else there’s a downside (which is often not real either).
So yes, unrealistic images can be a contributing factor. But the same is true for other factors, such as time spent watching TV and negative body image-related comments parents make, as one study on body dissatisfaction found. Often, if people feel insecure when looking at an image, they already had the insecurity beforehand — their response to the image just made it evident.
Will CVS’ new measure solve the problem?It likely won’t address people’s tendency to adopt unreal or others’ standards as their own. But by being transparent on which images are altered, measures like CVS’ may help consumers be more realistic about their purchases and expectations. Another study on eating disorders and the role of media we came across had an interesting finding:
College women with negative body image who were exposed to a seven-minute psychoeducation presentation involving media analysis were less likely to engage in social comparison and less likely to be negatively affected by images of slender models than students exposed to the same images without the media literacy component (Posovac et al., 2001).This seems to indicate that building awareness through media analysis may have a positive impact on the way people consume information and discern what’s real from what’s not. Lucky for us, we’re in the business of media analysis.
Along with marketing, advertising and entertainment, news is probably the information we consume the most. If retailers like CVS are coming clean about the information they sell, shouldn’t the media acknowledge its distortion as well? Oh, there’s a new hashtag for you: #mediatoo
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News