The next time you flip open a magazine and perform what has become an almost mechanical comparison of your hair, skin, hips, eyes and teeth with those of a seemingly flawless Priyanka Chopra or Malaika Arora, pause for a moment.
If the skin you’re seeing looks almost too good to be true — chances are it is.
“System correction,” as photographers and ad industry professionals blithely call it, is a common practice in the ad and fashion industries. It can range from something as innocuous as a simple colour correction to the more controversial practice of using Photoshop to shave a few pounds off a model’s tummy.
“It happens all the time,” discloses a fashion photographer who has requested anonymity for fear of losing clients. “No matter how good a person looks, after a certain age fat needs to be tucked in, skin needs to be touched up. System work is always needed and the changes made are sometimes drastic. A while ago I had done some work for Lakme. They decided they didn’t like the model’s left eye because it was slightly smaller than the right, so they just replaced it.”
Those in the advertising industry are candid about the fact that system corrections play an important role in putting out a final product that will sit well with the client. “When you initially shoot an ad, it’s too raw,” explains Sasha Mahan, a creative services professional at JWT in Mumbai. “There are usually blemishes and pimples on face we get rid of. Basically, we clean things up.”
Apart from skin and hair, weight is another large concern in the fashion and ad worlds. With an increased exposure to western media, India is gradually shifting its traditional perceptions about beauty to propel thinner, more athletic stars like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu to the top.
The aforementioned photographer source also informs us that Hindustan Unilever’s beauty brand Dove allegedly used system correction to shave almost 20 pounds off its poster girl, Karishma Kotak, as recently as last year. He explains that Dove had a long-term contract with the model, who reportedly put on weight after her first shoot with the brand. “Dove needed to use Karishma for a second campaign so we had to tone her down — right from her face to her waist, to her thighs, everything,” he says.
Dove’s endorsement of photo manipulation is ironic given the brand was in the news in 2006 for an ad campaign claiming to promote “real beauty.” The highlight of the campaign was a 75 second ad produced by Ogilvy & Mather in Canada, which shows a model being prepped to be photographed. After her makeup is applied and the photograph is taken, the ad shows her being photoshopped — her neck is elongated, her eyebrows are arched and her face is slimmed down. The commercial, which is titled Evolution and walked away with a top advertising award from Cannes in 2007, ends with the tag line: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”
Unsurprisingly, photo manipulation is a polarizing issue. Dr. Ashum Gupta, a professor of psychology at the University of Delhi, believes that mass media images can have a profound effect on young, particularly female viewers. “The media is publicizing the image of slim women as being desirable and the girls who are exposed to this aren’t eating properly. In the process they develop a lot of anxiety and depression because they don’t view themselves as socially desirable,” says Gupta. Her view is that practices like photo manipulation merely exacerbate body image problems already seeded by mass media images.
The contention that mass media images can significantly influence viewers is hardly new. In 2006, Madrid took the decision to ban models who were too thin from its fashion week, while in 2007, Milan based fashion houses Armani, Prada and Versace banned skinny models citing health concerns.
Admittedly, photo manipulation is just one small piece of a far larger and more complex puzzle: ideas about beauty and desirability are culturally conveyed through a host of mediums from a very young age. Arguably, however, constant exposure to seemingly perfect skin, features and bodies — images easily made possible through photo manipulation — will confer unrealistic ideas about normalcy and desirability upon viewers.
The counter argument is that system correction is just part of the business. “If you’ve signed a contract with a celebrity for years and they put on weight, you can’t just let that money go to waste. Obviously the brand would prefer to thin them down,” explains Mihiri Kanjirath, senior account representative at JWT in Mumbai.
Sasha Mahajan at JWT underscores the fact that ad agencies don’t make changes that are extreme because they need to keep things looking natural. Besides, she points out, today’s consumers aren’t naïve about the images they are exposed to. “Don’t think that the consumer or public assumes that what they see on TV is real; they know better. I think psychologists underestimate people,” she says.
Puranjoy Gupta, a fashion photographer who also performs system corrections, is of the view that the process should almost be viewed as an art form — due to the time, concentration and technical skill it takes to create the finished product. He states that an image can take up to 15 hours to system correct and that the charges can sometimes be as high as one and a half to two lakhs per image.
India’s voluntary advertising regulation body, the Advertising Standards Council of India, says that it has not discussed the issue of photo manipulation in advertising.
The council’s code for self-regulation deals largely with the issue of misrepresentation in advertising, stating that it aims to “ensure the truthfulness and honesty of representations and claims made by advertisements.” However, in a phone interview, Alan Collaco, the organization’s secretary general, states that there is nothing misleading about manipulating an image of a model to look 20 pounds lighter — so long as the advertisement doesn’t claim that she lost the weight through the product she is advertising for. “Ninety percent of our actresses look totally different in real life to what they look like on screen. What’s misleading about that?” says Collaco. His response inevitably raises the question of whether using software to modify an actress or model raises ethical concerns that achieving a similar effect through lighting and makeup do not.
Perhaps a possible solution would be to require advertisers, magazines and the media at large to publicly disclose when and how images are altered — if these alterations extend beyond simply colour, light and other prescribed fundamentals. This issue has already garnered attention in France, where health officials are reportedly campaigning for such a measure to be enforced. While the advertising industry may not embrace such a rule with open arms, it would inject a dose of reality into viewers — who are too often taken up by the glitz and glamour of the seeming perfection they see on hoardings and in magazines.