Pivoting to ‘real beauty’ gets complicated fast

Ogilvy UK recently said it will “no longer work with influencers who edit their bodies or faces for ads.” But enforcing these mandates is tricky.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

Companies like Aerie and CVS have committed to showing “real,” unretouched photos of models in their ads as the body-positivity movement has grown. And, as with any social movement co-opted by brands, agency interest has been piqued.

Ogilvy UK, an ad agency with clients ranging from Dove to Bacardi, announced earlier this month that it will “no longer work with influencers who edit their bodies or faces for ads.”

It’s no surprise the shop wants to be seen championing untouched imagery, given that one of its “major, big global clients” is a brand with the tagline “real beauty,” according to Mark Lainas, who currently serves as president of Canvas United but previously worked at Ogilvy UK.

But it’s complicated. Although some marketers see the ban as an altruistic move by Ogilvy that seems like a good first step in tackling a larger societal problem, others argue discouraging influencers from editing their photos could potentially do harm.

The no-edits mandate, Lainas said, is a “very small” drop in a “very big ocean of what needs to be done to solve the mental-health issues driven by social media.”

Genuine and real

Jake Bley, connections director, social media at VMLY&R, said “engagement is slowly declining across platforms for people who are providing an unattainable lifestyle,” while less polished content that is perceived as more real or authentic is now performing better. “While there are influencers out there that do heavily edit their photos, we are seeing a trend of authenticity.”

But not everyone thinks the move is particularly authentic since the agency would essentially be asking influencers it wants to work with to not do something they might normally do.

Paige Raiczyk, a social content strategist at Berlin Cameron, told us choosing not to use an influencer who has the reach, engagement, and followers that a brand is trying to reach because of some small retouches would be “a little inauthentic and counterproductive.”

“If influencer marketing is supposed to be all about authenticity, I think that means a lot more than just visuals and how an individual looks,” Raiczyk told us, suggesting that a good place to start might be requesting that influencers disclose if an image is edited or not. She added that she’s not sure if brands will be “super keen to dive right into this approach.”

Alexis Madison, associate director, digital strategy at Deutsch NY, said asking influencers to not retouch their content gives them an extra restrictive creative mandate that they have to fulfill on top of the other work required to create a branded post. “There are going to be some creators, I assume, very big ones, who will say no,” Madison said, noting that it could have an outsized impact on women. “There's a little less work, frankly, that a guy who's a content creator has to do. You’re asking a woman to reveal herself in a way that may not have allowed her to make money in the past.”

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Ogilvy did not respond to Marketing Brew’s request for comment, so it’s unclear how many of the agency’s clients have agreed to the mandate and plan to comply. It’s also not clear if influencers will be given guidelines regarding what Ogilvy considers editing.

On board

Jason Schlossberg, managing director, global head of strategic communications at Huge, said he found the mandate thought-provoking, adding that, at his agency, “We’re always striving to create products, brands, experiences, [and] content that supports and helps people. With that in mind, I think this is an interesting provocation that’s certainly worth us thinking about more and considering,” he explained.

But he isn’t sure if agencies will ultimately be the drivers of this sort of industry-wide change. “Historically, this type of movement has really been led by brands versus agencies.”

Rebecca Sabio, influencer marketing coordinator at swimwear brand Andie, told us her team already has somewhat similar practices in place: They ask influencers to avoid any heavy filtering or obvious retouching. However, she also said many of the creators they work with are already advocating for body positivity, so it’s not a huge ask for Andie specifically.

For brands that haven’t already made body positivity part of their mission or values, Schlossberg said Ogilvy’s mandate could cause more of an issue. “There is certainly an audience that is interested in these images when they’re retouched,” Schlossberg said. “There will be brands that will continue to work with influencers that digitally retouch themselves.”

The enforcement issue

Enforcing these types of mandates could present another issue for Ogilvy UK and others deciding to follow in its footsteps. Ogilvy UK told The Drum  it uses a tech stack called “InfluenceO” to determine whether or not a photo has been edited, but did not respond to Marketing Brew’s request for comment asking how that tech works.

If there’s tech in place that allows photo retouching to be recognized “consistently and accurately,” Schlossberg told us, he thinks more brands and agencies could introduce similar mandates to Ogilvy’s.

Bley told us that while he hasn’t heard of any tech that can detect all digital retouching to bodies and faces, he thinks it’s possible that it could work. “It really depends on how the metadata of the uploaded image is being collected,” he explained, saying that there are ways to strip photos of the metadata encoded that tell you whether or not it’s been edited. Some of those methods are as simple as taking a screenshot, Bley explained.

But “it’s a very difficult thing to govern,” he added.

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