So let’s talk about media for a few minute (and learn how to embed pictures in this blog!):

Media manipulation is fairly subtle. It can take many forms, but I want to talk about a basic one first – manipulating images.

Back in 2009, for example, Ralph Lauren published this ad:

Ralph Lauren Ad

It was promptly picked up by Boing Boing, the Mail, and others for the ludicrous look of the ad. Clearly, no woman can look like this and not topple over. We’re not talking slight editing, here, either – here is what the model actually looks like:

Beautiful Woman

Now this is a beautiful woman, already more attractive than 99% of the general population. Why bother altering her picture to such an extent? Why make her a walking caricature?

You all should know that magazines edit images significantly before publishing them – especially ads, covers, and ‘feature’ pictures. A few years ago, the edits were mostly innocuous – cropping the picture, changing the contrast ratio, and doing ‘macro’ changes of that type.

Over time, as the cost of processing went down and more and more people learned to use (and then abuse) program like Photoshop, edits became a lot more complex. Photoshop artists started to change skin tones, the lighting and shadow plays on body parts, the overall appearance of models. Compare two People covers, for example, one from 1988 (before the advent of Photoshop) and one from this year:

Manipulated PicturesManipuated Graphics via Photoshop

Note the difference – the ‘old’ cover features, essentially, normal people: in great lighting, in good makeup, in perfect poses – but real people nevertheless. The recent cover is impossibly perfect – no blemishes, every portrait perfectly lit and processed.

The question is not whether magazines and advertisement companies alter images – they do so in ever increasing numbers. For some funny examples, consider this blog about photo disasters, which catalogs the most amusing excesses.  Or this video, which shows what a good Photoshop artist can actually do with some time and a decent computer. Or this story, showing country music Faith Hill before and after the Photoshop treatment. Or the example below:

So everyone does it. The question becomes, why? The models in these magazines are attractive to begin with – what’s the point of enhancing them to the point of unreality?

If you ask editors, they’ll talk about several reasons. For one thing, the cost of enhancement has decreased dramatically over the years. Paying an artist to touch up a picture is fairly cheap today, and if you can make the model on the cover or the ad 20% more attractive and beautiful and unattainable for a couple of hundred or even a thousand dollars (keep in mind the shoot would have cost ten or twenty times that), it seems like a good investment.

Secondly, there’s a race to the bottom here. Many magazines compete for essentially the same eyeballs. When one magazine starts to edit out cellulite, smooth skin, and thin their models, consumers adjust and that becomes the ‘new’, expected reality. So it becomes harder for any single magazine or advertisement to resist the temptation to ‘perfect’ their models. Once one or two media outlets start to rely on Photoshop, not using it becomes a competitive disadvantage.

A third reason why editors use Photoshop is to support the story – it makes sense to ‘thin’ a model used for a diet ad, for example. Or to blacken O.J.’s face to make him look more sinister on a cover about his trial. A story about how quickly a celebrity dropped the baby weight, for example, will almost always have an enhanced picture to make the point even more obvious. A politician will have his image subtly enhanced to reduce age, increase appeal or to make him or her more attractive.

Finally, there is almost no cost to doing this. Spotting a Photoshopped picture is hard – unless it’s a terrible job, it takes a lot of work to prove that a picture was digitally altered. Even if you’re caught (see the examples above), beyond a few blogs (such as, few people care – which you should now recognize as the hallmark of a good manipulation. Even Ralph Lauren, with whom this blog entry started, basically called the Photoshopped advert a “mistake”, pulled it, and eventually fired the model in question.

Any picture you see today, in a magazine, an ad, billboard or even web page, has typically cost the user several thousand dollars before it ever reaches a computer. Buying celebrity snapshots, or paying a model her daily fee to pose, paying the photographer, all cost thousands of dollars. So you can safely assume that any editor worth his salt has invested a few hundred more dollars of technician time into that picture to make it more palatable. What’s ironic is that, as a result of the overuse of these techniques, over time the audiences are going to increasingly discount pictures. An ad with a beautiful model may be more interesting to the audience than an ad with a homely model, but once the audience believes that the pictures are doctored beyond reality, some of that magic is lost. Manipulation of images works – on an individual picture. Once all pictures are believed to be manipulated, though, the impact of any one image is dramatically reduced. So maybe this manipulation technique will eventually cause its own demise…