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Ethics of Image Retouching

Authored by: Ken Nishikawa, Creative Digital Artist

Image retouching in advertising is a hot topic, especially in regard to how women are portrayed. Being an image retoucher for several years, I’ve modified photos of people from subtle alterations to substantial reconstructions, gaining a perspective of my own, while watching public opinion and the collective standards of ‘image’ brought to light.

The primary concerns I hear on retouching the human body are the artificial idealizations of the human appearance and the negative self-image reflected on the public, creating an unrealistic bar, so to speak, for beauty. It is true that images have a strong impact on the human psyche, and I agree that advertisers must be mindful of the mental conditioning that can occur with the images that saturate the public eye. We, as advertisers, whom orchestrate these images should be the first line of critical scrutiny on how our work may be projected and the effects it may have on society.

However, this criticism of unrealistic standards of beauty seems to only concern people, but not so much with products and goods. There are thousands of advertisements flooding the market that feature super-clean, high-tech gadgets, or perfect cheeseburgers, but not many complain with the less than stellar appearance or condition of the ‘real’ things when they get them in hand. ‘It’s whatever’ is a common sentiment regarding the disconnect between promo images and real life. The observation is that it is ‘normal’ for people to accept their products are ‘less’ than the pictures.

Reflecting on culture, I’ve noticed so many people have adopted the qualities of becoming a product to be ‘sold’, including their looks, the people they associate with, and their activities, especially online and in social media. From employment profiles to dating sites, people often ‘retouch’ their lives to sell a curated 2D version of themselves, despite their real, less-shiny 3D selves. Has this been the result of advertising? Or has advertising only been one-upping what was already part of society’s (d)evolving standards?

One of the primary methods of advertising has always been for companies to present their product/service as a fantasy, rather than a reality. So, the question could focus on that method. How much fantasy should images of the world be injected with? Let’s take that controversial lingerie ad. It’s without question that the women modeling those products are consistent with mainstream perceived ideals of physical beauty. Are they the best choice for selling this product? Should such a standard of beauty exist at all? Based on history, civilizations have always had a standard of physical beauty. This standard may differ from civilization to civilization, and era to era, but it seems to have always existed. Is the criticism of the lingerie model the fact she’s slender? Or has perfect skin/hair? Will our current social sensibilities gravitate toward an ad that has the lingerie model with some acne and hair that lost a fight with humidity? Guess what? Industry doesn’t care. It will give society whatever it wants to sell more product, often with little concern to any negative repercussions to the public’s self-esteem. In all honesty, I can’t criticize industry for this, they are just money-making machines. It’s the main function of what they do, and the gauge by which they measure their success. Companies are not nurturers of the public, but simply providers of more of what they gravitate towards. Businesses are suppliers of demand, not moral guides.

So if we can agree that industry’s role is not to be moral teachers and guides, they are off the hook. But where does this standard of perception come from, and who’s really responsible for it? The public, who generally points fingers at others for being negative influences? Or the business world, who’s only directive is to generate profit? In my perspective, it’s quite clear that society has created all the situations we are living in, and all people are responsible for these situations.

The answer of ethics in altering public images of ‘ideals’, is simply this: You decide. The very definition of what is ethical was created by people, and people will choose to set this standard; entertainment, business and advertising will follow, and in result, give you more of what you want.