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Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

Roxanne North s209022059

Academic Essay Visual Communications III

Lecturer: G. Meyer

Beautification versus Truth Telling in Advertising Photography

I, Roxanne North, hereby declare that I know the nature of plagiarism. I further declare that I have provided in-text references for all quotations and ideas that I have borrowed from others; that I have used quotation marks wherever I have used exact words of others (direct quotations); and that I have not allowed anyone to plagiarise my work. I understand that the NMMU will not tolerate plagiarism and that I may not be awarded a mark for an assignment in which plagiarism is evident.


Date: September 2011


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

Advertising is a form of communication that captures the viewer’s attention and conveys a message to the audience that they need or want the product, ideals, or services presented to them. This persuasion, whether it is done ethically or not, makes use of many forms and elements, the largest one being playing on the audiences’ emotions of better living and sex appeal. Advertising, in particular, is a worldwide form of communication, however, by the graphics, imagery, and types of speech used in these advertisements cater for a specific target market.

In her essay “The Heroism of Vision”, Susan Sontag (1997: 74), a well established American writer, calls the history of photography a struggle between two imperatives: beautification and truth telling. The following essay aims to discuss and analyse the nature of advertising photograph and ethical values of whether the beautification of imagery in the advertising industry is necessary, or whether the visual truth of what the product looks like or how the product or service will benefit the consumer holds more importance. It will briefly discuss what individuals are exposed to from the advertising industry, and the post production and photo manipulation that is involved in producing the final image. This argumentative debate will be focused on the analysis of four different advertising photographs by reputable photographers, and followed with a conclusion of the topic of beauty versus truth.

There is no way to escape the media in our society. Marketers are going beyond using the major media such as the newspapers, magazines, television and radio but now place advertisements on virtually anything. According to Bauer and Greyser (1968: 1), in 1964 an individual was exposed to on average 76 advertisements daily just from the major media outlets. New York Times (2007: 1) states that individuals see “up to 5,000 today”. The public are subjected to these advertisements irrespective of age. Marketers are now even targeting the very young by playing radio advertisements by Walt Disney in school buses (Story, L. 2007: 1.). Lauren Pinches states that:

“An advertisement is a completely structured and thought out image. Every minute detail, from the models to the props and backgrounds, have been pre-planned and placed to convey a certain message.” (Pinches, L. 2010: 2)


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

Therefore, advertising serves as an effective tool if executed well. With this knowledge the question stands: Should the beautification and glamorisation of images in the advertising industry be the prime necessity, or is the truth of what the product or service will do for the consumer more important?

“There can be little argument that in modern capitalist societies the camera has proved to be an absolutely indispensable tool for the makers of consumer goods and those who sell ideas and services.” (Oxford University Press. 2005:1). From the rise of digital photography, digital manipulation has been the main post production tool used since 1994 to beautify images, which is done with high end editing software such as Adobe Photoshop and the Adobe Suite, and Paint Shop Pro. The degree that photographers and manipulation experts push the boundaries between an image being false advertising, ethically wrong and a deception of what the product or service can offer, and between retouching the image so that it enhances the benefits of the product or service is a debatable topic. In the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa clause 4.1.2. it states that “Advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation which, directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity, inaccuracy, exaggerated claim or otherwise, is likely to mislead the consumer.” (ASA, 2011: 5).

In the advertising industry passing digitally manipulated images for absolute realism has become the striving point for manipulation experts. With the ever rapidly growing developments of technology today the closer we become to reaching perfected fake realism. However, by manipulating photographs it has been made possible to make “invented ‘realities’ seem not at all fraudulent and have permitted viewers to suspend disbelief while remaining aware that the scene has been contrived.” (Rosenblum, N. 1989). When we look at a painting it is easier to see it as a piece of art, something that is constructed, altered and abstract. However, this idea is not adopted in the same manner for photographic images, even though one could consider manipulated photographic images as artworks due to the large amount of time and work spent on them. Similarly, Susan Sontag claims that a photograph “which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false, falsifies reality.” (Sontag, S. 1997: 74). Thus, making the false reality an image of beauty rather than truth.


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

In opposition to the above mentioned statement, Alexandra (2011: 1) states that “Intelligent consumers will know that images in magazines are always digitally enhanced” and continues to say that “for years, the consumer has been subject to this kind of photography.” In the same light magazine editors argue that they can not eliminate retouching of advertising photographic images because if they do consumers will stop buying the magazines, saying that “consumers simply are not interested in seeing every flaw that a person being photographed has”. According to the University of Missouri, however, looking at a woman’s magazine daily for one to three minutes has a negative influence on women, particularly that of a younger age group, self esteem. Seventy percent of girls report that images of models in magazines influence their definition of a perfect female body – thus placing manipulated flawless beauty an unachievable icon. It has also been reported that boys of the age of ten are already bulking up due to the use of steroids. The extremities of post production of images have risen to a degree that “models themselves can’t measure up to their own images” (Voice of America. 2005: 1). This leaves one asking is beauty truth and truth beauty? (Mitchell, H. 1997)

The following two beauty images, taken in studio by photographer Mario Testino, advertise the beauty product Lancôme Teint Miracle Foundation and Maybeline Eraser Foundation. The first image (Figure 1) consists of a fairly simple portrait image, using diffused butterfly lighting, of actress Julia Roberts. The model is making direct eye contact with the viewer, thus, making her eyes the immediate focal point. From this initial focal point your eye moves around the image, following the directing of her forearm, across to the text, over the empty space of her neck and back to the models face. Hence, the image has a good flow of movement. The tightly cropped composition is slightly top ,right hand, heavy

Fig 1. Testino, 2011. L’Oreal advertisement

where her head is, but balances out with the prominent text of the products name along the bottom. A neutral palette of colours is evident through out the image making it a soft image, with a minimal depth of field placing the background out of focus. The reader


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

can ‘read’ that the model’s arm, and body, continues past the crop of the image. The reader is able to fill in the missing area of the image due to the laws of gestalt.

The second image (Figure 2) is of super model Christy Turlington. Here the caucasian model’s make up is simple; her hair pulled back, and has no evidence of wearing any jewellery. The lighting used for this image is a soft broad lighting, with a minuscule contrast ratio. Here again the composition is tightly cropped with the image being top heavy but balancing out with the added text of the products name along the bottom of the image. This advertisement includes written detail of the product that fills a large percentage of the spread. The viewer is drawn into the image through the models eye, which is making direct contact with the audience. The flow of

Fig 2. Testino, 2011. L’Oreal advertisement

movement of the image travels from the models eyes, to the product insert, onto the writing in the advertisement and back onto the models facial features. The colour palette of this image is that of warmer tones, making use of reds, pinks, browns and white in the image. The model’s dark brown hair showing in the top right hand corner and the out of focus background in the bottom left hand corner, which is various shades of reds, balance one another out within the frame. One can safely assume, due to the laws of gestalt that the rest of the model’s face, head, and body extends beyond the captured framed.

Both the above advertisements have been banned by the ASA (Advertising Standard Association) due to misleading the consumers. This misrepresentation of the products was caused by post production digital retouching that exaggerated the results these products could achieve. The company L’Oreal (2011: 1) argued that the only post production that occurred to the images was “to lighten the skin, clean up make-up, remove stray hairs and reduce dark shadows and shading around the eyes’. However, the text on the advertisement (Figure 2) claims that the product “conceals instantly, visibly, precisely” and continues to indicate that it covers fine lines, crows feet, and dark


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

circles underneath the eyes. Having taken into account that L’Oreal stated that they reduced dark shadows from beneath the models eyes during post production, something the advertising image illustrates that the product does, confirms that the advertisements are directly misleading the consumers. Not only has this violated clause 4.2.1. in the Advertising Standards Association, but does not display a high ethic standard of the photographer / retoucher. Ethics of photography are the principles of best practice that the photographer should follow. These principles should be based on morals, goodwill, and simply common sense. Co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, Jo Swinson, believes that “these kinds of images put pressure on young women to conform to unrealistic ideals of beauty” that are claiming to portray natural and realistic imagery. Susan Sontag’s (1997:74) opinion on the camera creating beauty follows the same idea where she writes “so successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful”. Journalist of The Beauty Industry, Jenni Retourne, wrote in her article on Thursday 27 July:

“It is important that retouching beauty images is done within the context of what the product claims to do; so for instance in the case of Maybelline The Eraser, by all means use retouching to tidy up stray hairs, remove smudged make up, etc, but don’t use retouching to remove from the image what the product claims to do by itself. Otherwise surely it is testament to the fact the product doesn’t do what it says it does?”

In light of Retourne’s statement the images photographed for L’Oreal advertisements are images of beauty and a distorted truth of how the product will benefit the consumers, or the results consumers can expect.

New York photographer, Simon Harsent, uses photo manipulation and retouching in a different light. His images for the WWF campaign (Figures 3 to 6), “Once they gone they can’t come back”, are comprised with conventional landscape images that have been digitally altered with animals that have been dropped into the images. Although these images have been manipulated, creating a scene that is not


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

physically real; the images serve a utilitarian purpose in that they aim to educate the public.

Figure 3 is a fairly simple composition. There are ghost figures of penguins standing on an ice berg out in sea. There is minimal text in the composition, with just the slogan and logo in the top right hand corner, and the WWF organisation wording in the bottom right hand corner. The light is natural light, soft

Fig 3. 2010.

and coming from an angle directly above the ice berg, indicating that it could have been photographed on an over cast day. The composition is a fairly loose composition with the weight of the subject being balanced in the centre of the frame. There are no human models in the image, and none of the penguin ghosts are making eye contact. This causes the focal point to initially fall on the dominant ice berg. Your eye then starts moving up onto the small gathering of penguins, across to the single penguin on the edge of the ice berg, which is pointed on that edge, onto the rippling water in the foreground and back onto the centre piece of ice. Very little focus or attention is paid to the sky which is various shades of brown but lacks detail. The image is in focus from foreground to middle ground with the background sea starting to go out of focus. This causes depth within the image. The colours evident in this particular image are neutral tones of grey, white, and brown, with a spot of wispy cyan for the ghosts of the penguins. Having the penguins this colour adds emphasis on the disappearing animals, makes them stand out from the background, and symbolises cold and death.


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

During an interview with Ally Dent on March 30th 2010 Harsent informed the interviewer that he tries to “make things look as real as possible” continuing to explain that he tries “to make it look as deconstructed as the idea will allow” and tries to create as much as he can in camera during the

Fig 4, 2010.

shooting stage, rather than constructing an image through post production. However, Harsent continues to state that he constructs the image in the sense that when he has an idea he will work on how to make that idea materialize as apposed to being a photographer that captures decisive moments. When asked what Harsent’s style is Harsent he answered “my style is driven by how I want people to view the image and one of the things that really drives me is the emotion that a picture can create.” Therefore, Harsent aims to provide the truth of what he advertises within his images, but still plays on the audiences emotions to create a desired reaction. However, although providing a truthful message to the viewers through the use of imagery, Harsent’s images still portray a scene of beauty. This could cause controversy as although the image serves to tell the truth of what is happening to the environment and animals on it, the beautified manipulated

Fig 5, 2010.

image casts this concerning phenomena in a beautiful light. Again, one is left to ask: is beauty truth and truth beauty? (Mitchell, H. 1997)

The debate of photo manipulation and ethical issues associated with it has different implications depending on the type of publication. By freezing a

Fig 6, 2010.


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

moment of time photography has giving opportunity to new ideals of beauty forming, one which can be distorted from the truth and form an unhealthy mindset. Post production and digital manipulation has become the common place in the photographic industry and the implications there of should be realised. In advertisements where unrealistic expectations of the product are illustrated, leads to the deliberate misconception and misleading of the consumer. The standard of advertising, and degree in which the images have been tampered with is no longer just a question of false advertising, it has become a question of ethical considerations and moral standards.

This essay aimed at analysing and discussing the nature of advertising photography and the ethical issues around it in, the light of the Susan Sontag statement “truth telling and beautification”. This debate analysed the use of photo manipulation in different genres of advertising photography through the deconstruction and discuss of photographic work done by reputable photographers. Some cases found that retouching and heavy post production occurring to the images were detrimental to the public; where as manipulation in some cases were needed in order to convey the truth of the subjects. “The camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth.” (Sontag, 1997: 96). Essentially you need to look at the context that the post production occurs in. It is important that retouched or manipulated images are done within the context of what the product claims to do, does not become ethically wrong by falsifying the results of the product, or service.

Word Count: 2685 (Excluding cover page and reference sheet)


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling


Advertising Standard Association of South Africa. 2011. Academic Referencing of Internet Based Resources available September 14, from

Alexandra, I. 2011. Film Industry Network: Julia Roberts L’Oreal ad should not be banned, here’s why. Academic Referencing of Internet Based Resources available September 12, from

Bauer, R. and Greyser, S. 1968. Advertising in America: The Consumer View. Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.

Pinches, L. 2010. Issuu: Analysis of a Diesel Advertising Campaign. Academic Referencing on Internet Based Resources available September 10, from esel_adverti

Mitchell, H. 1997. For the Love of Wisdom. Lesson Eight: Body/Mind/Spirit

Oxford University Press. 2005. Advertising Photography. Academic Referencing of Internet Based Resources available September 12, from Retourne, J. 2011. Beauty Industry: Retouching and disclaimers in beauty advertising as ASA bans Lancôme and Maybelline ads. Academic Referencing available September 16, from

Rosenblum, N. 1989. A World History of Photography. Abbeville Press: Michigan

Sontag, S. 1997. On Photography. London: Pequin Books


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

Story, L. 2007. Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad. New York Times, 15 January.

Voice of America. 2005. Real Girls are Beautiful. September 7.


Roxanne North Beautification versus truth telling

Reading List

De Wet Erasmus. 2010. Issuu: Truth vs. Beauty in Advertising Photography. Academic Referencing on Internet Based Resources available September 10, from

Epstein, J. 2011. Op – Ed: Sex, Lies and Photoshop. New York Times. Academic Referencing available September 16, from

Harsent, S. 2011. Photographers Official Website. Academic Referencing on Internet Based Resources available September 01, from

Poulter, S. 2011. Because Julia Roberts wasn't beautiful enough: Star among celebs whose ads were banned over airbrushing. News Online. July 27.


Beauty vs. Truth  

A essay that discusses the topic of beauty vs truth in advertising photography.

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