29/11/2012 12:30 GMT | Updated 28/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Body Confidence - Is It Time To Regulate?

Digital fakery. Airbrushing. Perfect models with perfect make up, their perfect figures clad in perfect clothes. This imagery is everywhere and it's having a damaging effect on women and girls, who simply can't attain the unrealisable ideal.

So said the public, parents and children we spoke to as part of the ASA's recent research into public perceptions of harm and offence in advertising. As the UK's advertising regulator, the body confidence issue raises a number of challenges, not least what role we should play. There are calls for regulation: bans; restrictions; kitemarks. But is regulation really the answer?

Our research said the public considered the effect of idealised imagery on body confidence to be a problem across all media - TV, film, music videos. Advertising, for its part, was seen as exacerbating the problem because of its role selling products and brands. Even when respondents didn't think 'idealised' imagery affected them, they worried how it might affect others.

Despite that, respondents didn't want to see individual ads banned. Indeed, when asked about ads that had bothered them, just 2% of 11-16 year olds identified one that had made them feel bad about themselves. Instead, what we heard was a general concern about the cumulative effect of idealised imagery. 49% of young people, rising to 56% of girls aged 14-16, said yes when asked, directly, whether they'd seen advertising that made them feel bad about the way they looked. And the perception that a society saturated with glossy, blemish-free perfection is a bad thing was consistent with our qualitative findings.

So what role for regulation? We haven't seen robust evidence to suggest idealised imagery in advertising is actually having a damaging effect on women and girls, as opposed to being a worry for people. Nevertheless, we take a strict line on the use of irresponsible or misleading imagery. Fancy airbrushing an ad so the model's waist appears narrower than her head? Tempted to use underweight models? We'll ban irresponsible ads like that. And we'll also ban ads that mislead about what products can actually do. Airbrushing out a stray hair in an ad for lipstick is one thing. Airbrushing out wrinkles in an ad for an anti-wrinkle cream, quite another.

For the ASA to go further, perhaps with proscriptive regulatory interventions like a complete airbrushing ban or diversity quotas, raises significant practical as well as free speech issues. People have complained to us that a model's been airbrushed - "they couldn't possible look that good" - when, in fact, they did just look that good. An un-airbrushed model can, of course, look more beautiful than an airbrushed one. Beauty is rendered through professional makeup artists, lighting engineers and, above all, good genes, not just computers. What do we do about those ads? If it's a question of abundance, which ones do we ban? One in three? And where's the line between achievably good looking and irresponsibly beautiful?

The ASA's been around for 50 years. We've banned a lot of ads in that time, but we know that most advertisers behave responsibly most of the time. They simply don't want to upset their customers: it's bad for business. Research from the advertising industry think-tank Credos found that many young women prefer airbrushing to be used with restraint and favour campaigns that focus on diverse forms of natural beauty. If the use of idealised imagery is turning people off, as their and our research suggests, advertisers need to think seriously.

It comes down to this: public concern about idealised imagery in media is real and we, as a society, need to respond. That's why it's important that the ASA talks to the advertising industry to help them understand public concerns and address the root cause of these complex issues. Perhaps then we can achieve a solution that's more than just skin deep. But in this case, the regulatory 'big stick' isn't the answer.

This post forms part of the UK Government's blog series on body confidence which runs throughout 2012.

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