To be real or not? The dilemma beauty brands face

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When I used to work at a magazine that featured models on the cover, I frequently witnessed the finesse and skill of the art team. Airbrushing was second nature, its astonishing full capability revealed almost daily. Eyebags were freshened, wrinkles straightened, stray hairs, spots and bumps vanquished.

None of this surprised me, but the most frightening thing I saw was when a designer slashed a bikini model down from a size 10 to a bizarrely shaped size 6, all at the swipe of his mouse. Even he admitted that was going too far.

The widespread nature of airbrushing in magazines and advertising means I have become quite indifferent to it, knowing full well that despite how attractive the models Rosie Huntington-Whitely or Alexa Chung are, any advertising images we see of them are likely to have been airbrushed.

The exception to my indifference are make-up and beauty brands which sell products based on some purported skin transforming benefit, but also let their designers loose on the airbrushing software. It seems that many other women agree with me, based on Credos’ “Pretty as a Picture” study into women’s attitudes.

75% of young women in the study said they would prefer models in ads to appear un-airbrushed. 61% said airbrushing of blemishes or spots is unacceptable, while 84% said altering body shape is unacceptable.

Comments included: “It’s like they’re lying”, “They are selling us products that don’t work” and “You don’t know if they’ve actually got that product on”. I agree completely, hence my rant earlier this year about the use of false eyelashes and hair extensions to advertise mascara and shampoo respectively.

Firms such as Boots and Procter & Gamble have responded positively to the Credos study; both committing to use more natural images in their advertising.

But there are other comments that came out of the study that have made me see what kind of dilemma beauty brands are faced with.

“A really pretty girl would make me want to buy the product more,” said one young woman. A mum in the study even said they would be less likely to buy products advertised by less attractive people.

Further to that, over half the young women in the study say they take inspiration from adverts for their appearance and over a third want to look like the models they see in adverts.

A commenter on the Marketing Week website puts it very bluntly but truthfully: “Skincare brands need the larger than life, uber perfect images they shove in our imperfect faces more than any words in their ads (as)… maybe then we’ll believe that we actually need such products. If you saw the unretouched version of a typical skincare advert you wouldn’t even dream of wasting your money on trying the product.”

What are beauty brands to do then? Commit to using more realistic images and risk losing sales and prestige, or carry on airbrushing and continue fuelling the debate around self esteem and body image?

This calls for some strategic thinking from marketers. The desire to see real, unretouched women needs to somehow be married with continuing to promote aspiration and ideals.

The two might seem mutually exclusive, but ideas can be gained from the thousands of real people that post beauty tutorial videos to YouTube. The Daily Mail last week highlighted one US teen whose acne-cover up strategy has received nearly 2.5 million views.

She starts off with severely blemished skin, transforming herself in the next 10 minutes with a militarily precise armoury of primers, foundations, concealers and sprays, to emerge flawless.

She also name-checks the brands she uses throughout, showing how she has applied their products to solve a real problem – and how reality and fantasy can go together.

Her routine might be time consuming and expensive, but she has become a kind of hero to acne-suffering, insecure teens around the world. Perhaps what she has achieved can offer some marketing inspiration to beauty brands too.

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