Skip to main content

Ogilvy chronicled how it created a Photoshop tool called “Beautify,” which claimed to give a skin glow effect to models in photographs.

For years, Dove has pulled off a neat trick: criticizing beauty industry advertising to advertise its beauty products.

The most famous example was its "Evolution" video, which showed how a regular woman could be given supermodel looks through Photoshop, which digitally manipulated her face to look slimmer and her neck longer; eliminated even the smallest imperfection; and exaggerated features such as plush lips and doe eyes to an unrealistic scale. The campaign was an early example of a viral video, attracting plenty of attention for parent company Unilever, and netting two Grand Prix awards for Ogilvy & Mather Toronto at the Cannes advertising festival in 2007.

Since then, the company has panned the use of young models in anti-aging ads (in an ad for its Pro-Age product line,) and has also run self-esteem education programs for young girls as part of its long-running "Campaign for Real Beauty."

On International Women's Day earlier this month, Ogilvy Toronto once again turned to criticizing Photoshop in an online campaign – and targeted colleagues in the advertising and design industry in the process.

In its "Thought Before Action" video, Ogilvy chronicled how it created a Photoshop tool called "Beautify," which claimed to give a skin glow effect to models in photographs. It then promoted the tool on websites such as online forum Reddit, offering it for free download. The trick? When a user clicked the button to use the tool, instead of brightening skin it reverted all the changes in the image to its original.

The video has since racked up just over 800,000 views on YouTube – a relatively strong showing. It has also raised some eyebrows for its claim that art directors, graphic designers and photo retouchers are the ones who are "responsible for manipulating our perceptions." But it raises the opportunity for a discussion – just where does the demand for photo retouching come from?

"It's a good message, but it seems mis-targeted," said Dan Strasser, an art director and associate creative director at Bensimon Byrne in Toronto. "Anybody who is one of those guys knows that we're not the ones pushing for that. But we are the ones doing it. It's just who they aimed at to generate buzz and try to get more of a general response."

When asked whether handing in a photo that had not been retouched would elicit a negative reaction from a client, Mr. Strasser said, "hands down."

"It's just expected. Everything gets retouched … even if you're just taking a photo of a natural setting. You're going to tweak the colour balance."

Indeed, retouching affects all types of advertising. McDonald's Canada attracted attention last year with a set of videos answering people's not-so-flattering questions about the food. By far the most popular video dealt with why burgers look so perfect in ads. The video revealed the Photoshop tricks used to cover cracks in the bun, correct sagging cheese slices, and generally create unrealistic expectations of burger beauty.

But the subject of retouching in beauty advertising is considerably more fraught.

Many of us like to think that we're smart enough not to be reduced to shivering masses of insecurity simply because we see a David's Bridal ad in which the model's waist is magically smaller than her head. In 2008, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that women who saw images of very thin actresses and models experienced a negative effect on their body image.

Citing evidence that skewed beauty images can promote eating disorders, Israel passed a law last year prohibiting advertisers from using models with a body mass index of 18.5 or less, and requiring a disclosure in ads where models had been Photoshopped to look thinner.

"Art directors and designers don't work in silos … there is a discussion as to what needs to be done to the image. That discussion happens with the client and the agency," said Linda Carte, vice president and associate creative director at BBDO Toronto, who has done work for Holt Renfrew and Hudson's Bay, among others. "The majority of images you see in fashion and beauty have been retouched … you have to tell kids that not everything you see or read is fact."

Most often, the retouching Ms. Carte does focuses on removing awkward-looking shadows, correcting skin discoloration, and erasing blemishes. "I've never been asked to do something I don't agree with." (She also noted that while she will sometimes download a typeface, she has never sought out a Photoshop tool on Reddit – though Unilever says its fake tool was downloaded more than 9,000 times.)

But, she emphasized, the demand for retouching is not created by advertising agencies.

"I'm not blaming anybody, or criticizing art directors. … It's an entire culture, the entire industry," said Sharon MacLeod, Unilever Canada's vice-president of marketing. "If I could find some clever way of getting [marketers] to think differently, I would do that too. … Hopefully, all that Dove has done for years is sparked debate for clients and advertising agencies."

On the same day its latest video was released, Unilever Canada also launched a Facebook campaign called "ad makeover," criticizing the weight-loss ads that are prevalent on the social network. On the company's Facebook page, visitors could send out ads with positive messages. So far more than 2,000 people have created ads.

It's also brought up an old criticism of Unilever, used since the Real Beauty campaign began – that it is rather ironic to see these feel-good messages from the same company that owns the Axe product line. Ms MacLeod sees no issue with it, saying that Axe's ads are "intentionally over the top" and humorous.

The issue of retouching gets at a core concept of advertising, however.

"You cannot court consumers without creating some gap of where you are and where you want to be. Advertising is precisely aimed at that gap," said Sasha Grujicic, executive vice-president and head of strategy at Aegis Media Canada. He has watched advertising dollars – and consumer attention – flow into social media, and sees a consumer-centric shift in place that informs this issue as well. "There's a desire to move past the veneers with brands, and buy into the authentic truth behind a company. … This is the big struggle that agencies now face."


There are so many examples of fashion and beauty advertising abusing Photoshop that there are blogs devoted to the subject. Here are some examples of its use, and misuse:


Jennifer Lawrence cemented her Hollywood sweetheart status at Oscar time with an endearing joke about her fall on the way to the stage, a down-to-earth demeanour, and generally for not being Anne Hathaway. But she also took a moment on the red carpet to reflect on digital retouching. When an Access Hollywood host showed her the photos of her new campaign for Dior handbags, she declared, "That doesn't look like me at all. I love Photoshop more than anything in the world." When her interviewer tried to disagree, she replied, "Of course it's Photoshop. People don't look like that."


Proving that "people don't look like that," the Sweden-based retailer courted controversy in 2011 when a Norwegian website revealed that its online store was pasting models' heads on to a single perfect digitally-generated body. The flawless body was adjusted only to match the model's skin colour, and appeared over and over in the identical pose with one hand on its hip. A spokesperson for the company said at the time that the "virtual mannequin" pictures would appear alongside photos of real models. "This is not about ideals or to show off a perfect body, we do this to demonstrate an item of clothing. This is done for all clothing, not just for underwear, both male and female clothing," the spokesperson said.

Ralph Lauren

In 2009, the fashion house threatened legal action against the websites Boing Boing and Photoshop Disasters after they posted an ad for its Blue Label line featuring a model digitally retouched to be completely out of proportion, including an impossibly thin waist. The company later issued a statement about "the poor imaging and retouching" and saying it would "take every precaution to ensure that the caliber of our artwork represents our brand appropriately." More examples continued to surface, however.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story

Study and track financial data on any traded entity: click to open the full quote page. Data updated as of 01/03/24 7:00pm EST.

SymbolName% changeLast
Ralph Lauren Corp

Interact with The Globe