Last month, London mayor Sadiq Khan ordered that an ad promoting unhealthy body image ideals be removed from the Tube. Said Khan of the ad: “As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising, which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. Nobody should feel pressurized, while they travel on the Tube or bus, into unrealistic expectations surrounding their bodies.” Fashion advertising has a long, sordid history of pushing these sort of unrealistic tropes, whether figuratively or, in the case of Photoshopped work, literally. Seth Matlins, a seasoned marketer and former CMO of LiveNation, quit his job in 2010 to devote himself to holding the advertising industry to account. We asked Matlins about the latest London ban, the Truth in Advertising Act, and the importance of media literacy.
In the wake of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ad ban in London, we’re seeing once again a little more conversation around the deleterious effects advertising can have on people, particularly fashion advertising. Are ad bans like this effective?
We, as marketers, regardless of whether we’re fashion industry marketers or not, have both a responsibility to the people who come into contact with our creative, the people to whom we’re selling, and we have power — the power of the messages that we put out there. When you bring responsibility and power together then I think we have the basis for starting a conversation.
I absolutely applaud the mayor’s decision. I applaud the many actions that the ASB has taken in and around London in protecting it’s citizenry from the data-proven harm that these ads can create. When we look at whether we can do that here in the United States, I think the answer is, “Yes, we can.” I think the answer is, “Yes, we should,” with the caveat being that we should only when industry fails to self-regulate.
Do these bans work? I don’t think that we have enough data to know if they work. But they’re not hurting anybody. When you body shame and bully a population for generations, which is the case with ads like the one that the mayor of London pulled down, or like the ones that the ASB pulled down back in 2011 — the Lancôme billboards that featured Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington that became the impetus behind my Truth in Advertising Act. I know that bans are not doing any harm, and I believe that they are preventing harm.
You mentioned that this type of advertising can cause data-proven harm. Can you expand on this, maybe talk about some of the specific data?
Here’s what we know: when advertisers who are putting out “aspirational” images, images that are using attitude and lifestyle and socio-cultural expectations and ideals as a way of selling their widgets, whether that widget is an anti-aging cream or a domestically-made beer, things happen in the psyche and the emotions of the people who see them. What happens is that Photoshopped beauty ideals and standards become some little kid’s internalized expectation of what they’re supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to be, and in the case of the case of the London ad, what “beach body ready” means.
The problem is that they’re seeing something false but they believe it to be true. They compare themselves to it without understanding that what they’re comparing themselves to does not exist in reality. It’s some art director’s fantasy. They take it and they chase that ideal like a greyhound chasing a mechanical rabbit around the dog track with no hope, no chance, no possibility of ever catching it. When they don’t catch it they wind up feeling worse about themselves. They wind up dieting and hating and hurting themselves because they fall inevitably short of the image in the ad.
They’re like, “Why can’t I look like that? Why don’t I look like that?” What the data has proven, and I’ll give you a few data points in a just a second, is that this practice, these ads, cause and contribute to an array of mental health issues, emotional health issues, and physical health issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate. At the most extreme end they contribute to eating disorders, which in turn contribute to the death of more people than any other known mental illness, at least domestically. What we know from the data is that as kids grow up, the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves.
What we know is 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 53% becomes 78%, so roughly a 50% increase. When they’re adults, 91% of women will not like themselves, will not like something about their bodies. Women on average have 13 thoughts of self-hate every single day. We know that these ads, and ads like these, have a causal and contributory effect because of pleas from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, the Eating Disorder Coalition, and tens of thousands of doctors, mental and physical, educators, psychologists, health care providers, to say nothing of the governments of France, Israel, and Australia, who have urged advertisers to act on the links between what we consider deceptive and false ad practices and negative health consequences. And yet to date, by and large, and certainly at scale, nobody has.
I’ve read some critiques of ad bans, specifically in the wake of the recent London ban, saying that banning things historically only makes them more enticing. How do you respond to that line of critique?
It’s an absurd line of critique. What we’re talking about is simply not putting out toxic messaging. If there was a product on the shelves today that made 53% of 13-year-old girls unhappy, caused a certain disproportionate share of them to not eat or to throw up every time they did eat, we would move within an instant to pull that product from shelves and to hold the manufacturer accountable and responsible to the harm they’ve done. The fact of the matter is that product is on the shelves. The shelves are computer screens, our magazine pages, and billboards. And we are doing nothing.
Banning an ad, what it does perhaps — perhaps — is it may make the product that is advertised more alluring. Here, we are not banning a product. We are banning a specific creative expression of a product that we know does harm. We’re not saying you can’t advertise whatever the product was that Mayor Khan pulled down ads for. We’re saying you can’t do it in a way that hurts the people who come into contact with it, in particular kids who don’t have the cognitive ability to process it. It is not banning ads. It’s saying you can’t advertise this way. There’s a massive difference.
None of that considers the generations of children and the adults they’ll become who will grow up without these images, and the mental, emotional, and physical health upsides of that. This is about keeping deleterious, dangerous, body-shamming, bullying images out of the hearts and minds of a population. What that does to make body shaming and bullying more alluring, I have absolutely no idea. I think it’s a specious argument that applies perhaps more appropriately to other product categories. This is not a product category ban.
So, what reason does the advertising industry have at this point not to begin adjusting the way they operate in the face of this data and in the face of pressure from different experts and agencies?
That’s a hell of a question and I wish I had a hell of an answer. By and large the industry just ignores the data and ignores requests to come to the table and talk about how we solve this problem together.
What I would posit is that they have a status quo that is serving them. It is serving them commercially. It’s understandable — nobody wants to disrupt commercial success. What I think we have to recognize is that we have a power and a responsibility, and despite the fact that the negative consequences may be unintended, they are real, far more real than the images that we’re presenting. We have to do something.
I’m quite certain that brands who recognize their power and responsibility and move to make positive change they will be rewarded for doing the right thing. They will be rewarded commercially. American consumers, in particular millennials, who are increasingly driving the consumer economy, expect transparency and authenticity from the brands they buy from. You see the upside when somebody like Aerie, the teen lingerie brand, stops photoshopping. They’ve seen two straight years of real commercial success, year-over-year sales progress.
The point you just made about honesty and transparency, I find that really interesting. I was asked recently what I thought millennials were looking for. A pretty broad question, but in my observations, the brands that really connect with young people are ones that are not obviously selling fantasies. They’re selling based on an idea of, “This is who we are as a brand, this is what we are offering, if you like it, cool.” Do you think we’re going to see this trend continuing to pick up speed?
Yes, I do. I think that we’ll see it pick up speed in the beauty and fashion businesses. If you look at the success of YouTube creators, and YouTube celebrity culture, so much of the popularity of the talent on YouTube that has emerged is rooted in their authenticity. The audience is beginning to see themselves in those creators. They see them as human beings with flaws and foibles. I hope that this trend becomes our new reality because people will be happier, lives will be saved. Literally. That’s not hyperbole.
Could you just give me a brief summary of what the Truth In Advertising Act encompasses and what it hopes to achieve?
The Truth in Advertising Act asks the FTC — and the reason we asked the FTC is because they oversee false and deceptive and unfair advertising — to bring all of the stakeholders together. That includes the ad industry, it includes the mental, physical, and emotional health communities, it includes everybody involved in this conversation and it asks them to come together to figure out what we can do collectively to reduce the harm that we know is being done by these images. That’s the act. The act is a matter of strategy. It does not forward a specific policy recommendation or a strategy for reduction. It says, “Hey, we are vested in this. Let’s all come together and figure out what’s going to work best for everybody, in particular the children who are suffering as a result of the ads.” That’s what the act does. It is trying to do nothing more than reduce the harm that these false and unfair ads perpetrate and have perpetrated on generations. It’s impossible for me to understand, at least based on argument I’ve seen over the last 5 years, how anyone can be against what we’re trying to do here.
Can you tell me a bit about the latest going on with the act?
The bill, originally introduced in 2014, was re-introduced to this congress in late February 2016. In the last six to eight weeks we’ve picked up another few sponsors that will maintain its bi-partisan sponsorship and support. We continue to work to bring on a senate companion bill. Our congressional sponsors continue to work with and talk to the FTC about both what they can do and why they’re not doing anything.
That’s there are three tranches to the action. The bill is just one part of the action. There is the regulatory side, the legislative side which the Truth in Advertising Act.
There is the self-regulatory side, because as I said before, we don’t need a law if the industry just simply does the right thing by the people they’re selling to and recognizes the harm in what they have been doing and ceases to do it. We continue trying to reach and influence and cajole folks on both the ad and editorial side of the conversation about what role they can play in reducing the harm done by these body shaming, bullying, false and unfair images.
The third tranche is litigation, which we have avoided so far out of the belief that this ought not need to be solved legally. I’m beginning to think we’ll have no choice. We are considering a class-action suit against a variety of advertisers for the harm they have done. We looked at what the FTC hasn’t done and we looked at it as complete breach of fiduciary responsibility, a complete abdication of their mandate to protect the American consumer, and of the body’s increasing irrelevance to its own mandates as they have absolutely failed to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century marketplace. They continue to govern a 21st century marketplace with 20th century policies and interpretations of policies. They could address this tomorrow.
So, I know that what spurred you towards this focus of your life was the fact that you have two young children and you were motivated out of concern for them. While the ad industry is resisting getting its shit together, what are some resources that you have encountered that can be helpful in the meantime?
We all have a role to play. We all have a responsibility here. Parents have a huge responsibility. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children how to value themselves and how to critique media. It really is about media literacy. I spend a great deal of time, I don’t yet know how successfully, teaching my children media literacy.
The only live TV my kids see is sports. Otherwise I get to monitor what they see and play that role. When we’d be watching a basketball game or something, commercials would come on — and this was when they were probably four and five, they’re now nine and 10 — and I would do that “see no evil, hear no evil” kind of thing. I’d cover their eyes so that they couldn’t see the creative. It was at a minimum age-inappropriate, I thought.
I was telling a friend of mine who’s a media critic about the gymnastics you have to go through to jump on your children’s faces so that they’re protected from these messages. She said, “Hey, wrong move. What you need to do is when they see the commercial, when they see the ad, ask them a couple of questions.” For the last four or five years, what I ask my children after every time I’m aware of the fact that they’ve seen an ad is two questions: what are they trying to sell you and how are they trying to sell it to you?
My kids now ask themselves those questions when they see ads. That is a part of it. Part of our challenge, part of the challenge parents face, is we do not parent our children alone. We raise our children in and among socio-cultural influences, and the socio-cultural influences oftentimes become more important than our voices. Victoria’s Secret is helping to raise my children with an ad that reads, “A perfect body.” Everybody is raising my children. Everybody who they come into contact with, whether that’s their friends at school, their teachers, the guy at the bus stop, the billboard at the bus stop, etc., etc. We do not raise our children in a cocoon.
That’s been a big part of my personal impetus in getting involved with and calling for the Truth in Advertising Act. All you can do is teach them how to process what they’re seeing. If there are other approaches and other tools, I’m wide open. I’ve been really consistent over the five years of advocating for the Truth in Advertising Act, saying to anyone who listens, “If you’ve got a better solution, I’m all in.” I’m not saying this is a perfect solution. We absolutely know it is not a panacea for all that ails us but we’re confident it will do no harm and do some good. That’s better than our current status quo.
Seth, any closing thoughts that you wanted to add?
Yeah, I think the closing thought goes back to the beginning, which is that we have a responsibility to the people who come into contact with our messages and we also have the power. Advertising, marketing, has always been about capturing attention and influencing attitudes and behaviors. Despite the tactical changes driven by technology over the last period in time, the fundamental truth, the fundamental intent, hasn’t changed. We can use that power for good or we can use it for ill. We can use it actively or we can use it passively. I’m heartened by small steps that we’re seeing in and around the fashion industry where we’re seeing more gender fluidity and, even though it’s not a lot, more representation of diverse bodies and humans.
We see Kate Winslet putting a no Photoshop clause in her L’Oreal contract, and L’Oreal accepts it. We see more and more talent saying, “Enough is enough. We have a responsibility. We can sell our wares without doing harm to the people we’re selling them to.” I think that we can do that across all different categories. I’m encouraged by that. Yet I still feel impatient to get to a scaled answer quickly because I know that everyday that somebody comes into contact with these false and deceptive images harm is done and patterns are set and expectations are created that can sometimes take a lot of time to try and overcome.