Back in 2021, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) launched a review on body image in advertising. One of the key areas of focus was the use of digitally altered images in advertising. The ASA has now published an update about their progress in that review.
Exposure to unrealistic and unattainable beauty norms is perceived to have serious, negative effects on public health linked to a range of mental health issues, including eating disorders. As pressure mounts to address potential harms arising from digitally altered images in advertising, and the unrealistic expectations they can set for body image, the ASA’s update serves as a useful reminder of where things currently stand. CAP and BCAP intend to publish the full outcome of their review in Spring 2024.
The purpose of the CAP and BCAP review is to develop an understanding of:
- the techniques used to digitally alter images;
- the potential harm caused using such images in advertising; and
- the regulator’s role in mitigating any such harm.
Current regulatory position
The current CAP and BCAP codes do not contain specific regulations regarding body image or the use of production techniques on images in ads. Instead, complaints in this area have been addressed by the ASA under:
- CAP Code rule 1.3 and BCAP Code rule 1.2, which state that marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society; and
- CAP Code Section 3 and BCAP Code Section 3, which prohibit misleading advertising.
In recent years, the ASA has made several rulings, for example, against influencer ads on Instagram in which filters have been used to exaggerate the performance of beauty products.
The ASA have also published guidance for advertisers regarding promotion of an unhealthy body image, cosmetic production techniques, and the use of production techniques in the beauty and cosmetic industries.
The ongoing review is considering whether further intervention from the regulator is necessary to protect consumers from harm – particularly children, young people and vulnerable groups.
As part of the update, the ASA reported on the key stakeholder roundtable discussions that were held in June 2023.
It was widely agreed amongst stakeholders that the use of digitally altered images, in particular on social media, could give rise to potential harm regarding body image and that children and young people were particularly vulnerable to such harm.
The roundtable discussed various measures that could be implemented to mitigate this potential harm, including:
- a general prohibition on the use of digitally altered images in ads;
- requiring digitally altered images to be labelled, so that consumers are aware of the alterations (potentially similar to the requirements that exist in other jurisdictions such as Norway, France and Israel);
- using an evidence standard, based on open source data, to implement the labelling proposal above and to enable access to the history of any digital alterations carried out on an image; and
- a threshold-based restriction, whereby ‘significant’ alterations that perpetuate body image harms based on factors such as weight, age or key body features, are prohibited.
The roundtable discussions acknowledged, however, that any new advertising restrictions to mitigate body image related harms would be complex to introduce, highlighting several issues that the ASA would need to consider, including:
- what constitutes a relevant digital alteration – there are a variety of techniques used to alter images and not all give rise to body image related harm;
- the purpose of the digital alteration – a general prohibition could prevent advertisers from altering images for the purposes of comedic or horror effects; and
- the effectiveness of labelling – some evidence suggests labelling can could perpetuate more harm, as it draws attention to the alteration.
As mentioned above, the ASA has committed to resolve by Spring 2024 whether the existing protections in the CAP and BCAP Codes and supplementary guidance are adequate to address the potential harm arising from digitally altered body images in advertising.
While the ASA’s update does not provide any new guidance for advertisers at this stage, it does highlight the ASA’s ongoing commitment to this issue and their willingness to implement measures to mitigate any harm, if necessary.
Advertisers should carefully consider the use of any digitally altered images in advertising and take care to avoid the potential for body image related harms if alterations are made. It’s important not to suggest that success, happiness or wellbeing depend on conforming to a particular body shape or appearance.