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Advertising: Where Are We Now on Body Image?

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According to Dove, winners of the advertising award at the Body Confidence Awards hosted by the APPG on Body Image this month, only one in eight British women consider themselves attractive. With results like this it is no surprise that political concerns and public awareness surrounding low body confidence in the UK are increasing rapidly. Minister for Equalities Lynne Featherstone's Government Body Confidence campaign has driven debates on how to diversify socially prescribed definitions of beauty.

The focus for advertising began with discussions on airbrushing in the media; yet approaching this from an informed and balanced stand point was hindered by the lack of solid research that had been conducted into understanding the issue. The advertising industry's think tank, Credos, set about rectifying this and last autumn published Pretty as a Picture, the culmination of almost a year's research into airbrushing and body image. We held focus groups with 24 young women, spanning ages from 10-18, held separate focus groups with their Mums, and commissioned an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 1000 girls aged 10-21 years.

We found that 84% of our sample understands what airbrushing means, whilst 61% reject the use of airbrushing in removing blemishes, and a massive 84% believe it's unacceptable to change the shape of models' figures. Overwhelmingly, the message was that whilst beauty and glamour are central to advertising, faking beauty undermines young women's trust in a brand.

These results are helpful in understanding how advertising can have a positive effect on women's body confidence. Since its publication, Pretty as a Picture has gained significant global exposure. We have presented the findings to the Government Equalities Team at the Home Office, the YMCA and GirlGuiding UK. We've been in touch with All Walks Beyond the Catwalk and the Geena Davis Institute in the USA, as well as top brands including L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Avon, Boots and P&G. We have presented to European advertising bodies in Brussels, including self-regulatory organisations and advertising industry representatives from across the world. Suffice to say we are making sure the issue is understood and absorbed by anyone we can reach!

As a result, we have had significant feedback from a number of advertisers and trade bodies. The Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association has commended Credos for confirming the complexity of the issue surrounding body image and providing the clarification needed in order to reach 'an appropriate solution'.

Likewise, both Procter & Gamble and Boots have found Pretty as a Picture useful in underlining what their customers and internal research have indicated for some time: that many young women prefer airbrushing to be used with restraint. Having their findings confirmed by an external source has been useful, with Procter & Gamble stating that it 'will help us implement this knowledge into our organisation'.

Official CAP and BCAP guidelines into the use of production techniques in cosmetics advertising are aimed at preventing advertisers from misleading consumers through exaggerated claims in images. Credos evidence provides the advertising industry with some consumer insight into this field, with the knowledge that young women favour campaigns that focus on diverse forms of natural beauty. After all, what's good for the consumer is good for business.

The advertising industry is highly aware of its responsibilities. Pretty as a Picture was commissioned to help advertisers understand what young women think about images in advertising, and it's good to hear policymakers recognising the industry's positive response. It has been a worthy venture for advertising, and we hope that other sectors can learn from its value when considering how they can engage with the body confidence agenda.

This post forms part of the UK government's blog series on body confidence which will run throughout 2012.

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