The Truth in Advertising Act: Can the Government Really Regulate Photoshopping?

A Congressional Briefing Promotes a New Bill That Would Direct the FTC to Figure Out How to Deal with Misleadingly Altered Images

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As I wandered through the halls of the Cannon House Office Building, a stately Beaux Arts behemoth that sits kitty-corner from the United States Capitol, I kept thinking how strange it was that I'd come to Washington, D.C., of all places, to be lectured about truth -- specifically "truth in advertising."

You may be wondering: Truth? Like, truth in political advertising?

Hahahahahahahahaha, get real! (That would never happen.) I was there, on the first Thursday in April, to sit in on a congressional briefing titled "Truth in Advertising: The FTC's Role in Protecting Consumers from Photoshopped Ads." It was timed to help drum up interest in newly introduced H.R. 4341, aka the Truth in Advertising Act, a bill co-sponsored by Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Lois Capps, D-Calif., along with Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Fla.

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

Per the bill's introductory language, it's intended "to direct the Federal Trade Commission to submit to Congress a report on the use, in advertising and other media for the promotion of commercial products, of images that have been altered to materially change the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted."

Cannon Room 210 was packed with mostly women, many of whom are involved with the Eating Disorders Coalition, the D.C. advocacy group that helped host this briefing.

But one of the people most deeply involved in this cause is a man: Seth Matlins. The former CMO of Live Nation and the guy who started the marketing practice at Creative Artists Agency, he found me in the audience before the briefing began and we chatted a bit about how he and his wife, Eva, have been pushing for truth-in-advertising legislation since 2011. In August of that year he wrote a widely shared Huffington Post editorial titled "Why Beauty Ads Should Be Legislated" regarding what they were then calling the Self-Esteem Act.

The briefing started and Matlins went first, launching into a rousing speech decrying "advertising's industrywide practice of routinely and materially misrepresenting the appearance of people" and citing research linking unrealistic depictions of human bodies in the media to eating disorders in both women and men. "Let's be clear," he said. "This is not an anti-advertising bill; it is a truth-in-advertising bill. And let's also be clear: This is not a First Amendment issue; it's a consumer-protection and health issue. … These ads are deceptive and they are damaging."

He got a standing ovation -- but not before his speech was interrupted by the (late) arrival of Rep. Capps. Matlins ceded the podium mid-speech so Capps could give her brief speech, which also got a standing ovation -- and then she left.

Later on, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen also showed up suddenly, interrupted another speaker to give her speech, then got a standing ovation, too -- and then also abruptly left.

All of which underscores that congressional briefings are stagecraft, a form of marketing. In fact, some congressional briefings attract no actual members of congress -- representatives and senators frequently send staffers on fact-finding missions in their stead -- so Capps and Ros-Lehtinen were treated like visiting royalty just for bothering to show up for about 10 minutes each.

Still, there was a triumphant air to the proceedings. The fact that Matlins and the Eating Disorders Coalition and their allies have gotten this far -- an actual bill introduced with three co-sponsors -- suggests some momentum. Which, depending on where you stand on the issue of government regulation of advertising, is either awesome or vaguely terrifying.

To be honest, I'm not 100% sure where I stand. On the one hand, I think cosmetics companies getting to use overly Photoshopped images of models and actors as "proof" of the efficacy of their allegedly youth-restoring skin creams is obviously wrong. On the other hand, I don't trust typically tech-illiterate lawmakers or the FTC to be able to articulate what constitutes acceptable levels of Photoshopping.

Really, what are we talking about here? FTC regulations that somehow say, "Thou shall not create a thigh gap where one does not exist"? Or "Thou shall not smooth out wrinkles"?

Apparently, to some extent, yeah. Because the Truth in Advertising briefing also had a bit of a courtroom feel, with marketers being tried in absentia for crimes against (mostly) womankind. In fact, arrayed near the front of the room were poster-size enlargements of print ads with altered images, including a Target ad of a model in a swimsuit with red circles pointing out where her thighs and arms had been slimmed. And a Dolce & Gabbana ad starring Madonna.

Which got me thinking: How "real" are models and celebrities even pre-Photoshop? Madonna, for instance, can afford teams of personal trainers, stylists and makeup artists that can make her 55-year-old corpus look weirdly ageless. Should Congress intervene?

For that matter, should Congress direct the FTC to regulate push-up bras or Spanx?

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be flip.

But I worry: Where do we draw the line? Where does "truth" in advertising -- not to mention in photography in general, or life in general -- begin and end?

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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