Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Where to draw the line

I've been working freelance this week on a European line of products, found in the pharmacy, that help combat cellulite. By all accounts—pharmacists and friends alike—the stuff works. It's been around a long time, and I suppose that one could argue that its dated look in packaging and advertising contribute to the sense one has that the brand is "trustworthy". There are no sleek modern graphics to seduce you. No minimalist lines or frosted glass. Instead, the company's claims are specifically spelled out on the packaging. "Increases tone around the waistline by 37% within 4 weeks of use." Stuff like that. The names of mysterious active ingredients appear as well, in hefty Helvetica Neue expanded. Along with this rigorously Swiss typeface, the advertising has featured—as do competitive campaigns for brands such as La Roche, Vichy, Collistar, etc.—a perfectly perfect woman, or parts thereof. When asked to take a stab at refreshing or modernizing the campaign, one of my first thoughts was to back off on the retouching. Too much perfection a dead body makes.

Nonetheless, in the end, I hesitated to even broach the subject. This company is not Dove, and they could easily argue that their success, which is enormous, is based on these very perfect, inhuman images. Further, I discovered that as I was presenting my own updated versions of the ads, I too was tempted to retouch the photos I'd been given to work with. I wondered why?

I can't really answer the question, other than to say that the model the agency had photographed was so close to perfection, that certain flaws felt like they had to go. On the other hand, as I poised my Photoshop airbrush over her tanline, I realized that the retouching I was doing, was nothing compared to what they would want eventually. In the end, she would be truly airbrushed, resculpted, scrubbed clean of any and all variations in skin tone. Her curves would no longer appear soft, but as firm and cool as marble. She wouldn't be she, she would be a platonic ideal. Both boring, and a lie. And this coming from a company which takes great pains to precisely quantify its promises.

I'm not laying blame here. I'm just tossing it out there for thought and consideration. Because the other thing that bothers the brain is this: how many of us would buy the product if the images were "real." How do you show "37% more tone"? Compared to what? Without the ideal of perfection dangling carrot-like before our eyes, do we take the otherwise honest bait? I don't know. Maybe not. And in fact, it doesn't even feel like a lie; it merely feels like what it is: an obvious idealization. I know that won't be me, but I don't really care. 37% of something moving in that direction seems like a fair shake.

Then I remembered a fascinating article entitled "Picture Perfect" which I read in the May 12 issue of the New Yorker about perhaps the best photographic retoucher in the world, Pascal Dangin. He was the retoucher behind the Dove campaign, behind all those "real" women that we assume are appearing "as is." Don't be fooled; even they have been doctored for presentation.

When he explains that he'll leave an actress' crooked teeth and laughlines because they make her who she is, he is telling us from a position of great visual authority that there's a significant difference between beauty and perfection. Aging is hard enough, but we would be greatly accomplished if we could assess ourselves in the mirror with as much humanity: what of our reflections is simply who we are? and what would be left if we erased it?


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