Commentary: CVS’s Photoshop ban will spread

The beauty industry is and always has been about selling an ideal. For a long time, that ideal centered on youth, thinness/fitness, shiny hair and perfect teeth. Creams and serums, paints and powders, help achieve those ideals, and marketing demographics for the products skew decidedly female, and younger.

The beauty industry has in the last few years seen a backlash from the effect its marketing has on its consumers, particularly the youngest among them, as rates of eating disorders and body dysmorphia are thrusting upward at jet speed. AdMedia’s Media and Body Image study showed eating disorders increased by 400% since 1970, and the growth of the $33 billion diet industry over the last 20 years is largely attributable to media and advertising.

Photoshop and image retouching has been a default step in the advertising process nearly since its inception; after all, brands are selling an ideal, so the fewer “flaws” in an advertising image the better, right? The issue, only brought to light in the last decade or so, is the long reaching effects on the human psyche of selling this flawless image when even the most amazingly beautiful people have flaws.

Ad critic Jean Kilbourne documented the “toxic cultural environment” that food and beauty advertising creates and how that environment impacts self-esteem and our relationships with food in her film "Killing Us Softly." Speaking at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2015, Kilbourne said “Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day…and failure to live up to them is inevitable because they are based on a flawlessness that doesn’t exist.”

Brands take strong stand
At the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York in January, CVS Pharmacy president Helena Foulkes announced a ban on photo manipulation in the imagery it creates for its store-brand beauty products. The ban applies to the imagery used its stores, website, social media and marketing. Foulkes hopes to push the chain’s beauty suppliers in a similar direction.

Many smaller brands have also agreed to non-retouched advertising images. Fashion brands ModCloth and Aerie, media outlets like Seventeen and Darling Magazine and Dove’s not-without-its-missteps “Real Beauty” campaign.

The CVS move is not small time. With over 9,600 stores in the U.S., CVS is the nation’s largest drugstore outlet and one of the largest retailers of beauty products. CVS’ beauty aisles boast such massive makeup brands as L'Oreal, Maybelline and Coty, and body care brands Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and others. The effects of this decision will impact the landscape in a giant way.

Will beauty and retail industries follow suit?
Yes, men suffer also from body dysmorphia and negative self-esteem due to idealized images of masculinity — but there’s no question the vast majority of beauty advertising is geared toward women and girls, many of whom are striking back against the “expectation of beauty.” This means shunning brands that only feature default thin, white models Photoshopped to near super-alien levels of perfection.

The buying power of women is immense in the beauty industry, and any brand knows it must follow the consumer to keep profits flowing. The question is, how far has that pendulum swung? While the backlash against airbrushed idealism is undoubtedly underway, how far will beauty brands be willing to go with that change? After all, they’re selling self-improvement; “you’re perfect just the way you are” doesn’t move as much product.

CVS taking a strong stance here will ultimately put pressure on the largest beauty brands to make a “must” change or face the brand soul crushing call-out. CVS pledged to specifically label any products sold in its stores that don’t commit to non-retouched imagery by 2020, a label likely to offset aspirational effects of retouched images. Advertisers may scream, but will most likely fall in line, especially as the issue gains more visibility and impact in the media.

Target, which has positioned itself as one of the more progressive retail brands, and Walgreens are going to face the same decision based on CVS’ declaration. Which side of the debate will they want to be on?

The truth in today’s sociopolitical climate, brands can‘t afford to stay silent on social issues. A recent survey by Sprout Social states that around two-thirds of consumers believe it is either “somewhat” or “very important” for brands to take a stand on social/political issues, with only 11% saying it was “not at all important.” Consumers appreciate brands that become part of the conversation and show their core brand DNA.

The CVS ban is a major change in the way consumer brands approach advertising and marketing; specifically with health and beauty. Other factors, including showing more diverse kinds of beauty and helping light up positive social change, will also be a must to build and maintain meaningful brand loyalty with consumers.

Eric Schiffer is CEO and chairman of Reputation Management Consultants and He works with Fortune 500 companies and mid-size market leading firms on branding and image management.