Boomer Women, Advertising and Photoshop: The Future of Beauty

Beauty is only skin deep.

This time-honored idiom -- and title of a former hit song by The Temptations -- recognizes an inexorable truth of human aging: Exterior beauty is fleeting and superficial.

Now this old expression has found more contemporary implications in an era when digital photo editing challenges another long-established idiom: Seeing is believing.

For background, take a look at this disquieting short video from the Dove Self-Esteem Fund:

The British government has been grappling with whether or not to force advertisers to divulge Photoshop perfecting of fashion and cosmetics models. As reported by the Associated Press, "... officials are sitting down with advertisers, fashion editors and health experts to discuss how to curb the practice of airbrushing to promote body confidence among girls and women." As this article substantiates, many consumers do not consciously realize that scores of models in magazines today are "neither real nor attainable."

The AP article continues: "'s the latest initiative in a long-running battle to force the fashion industry to show more diverse -- and realistic -- kinds of beauty."

Clearly, the public has cause for concern about the extent to which photo editing has led to impossible representations of beauty, much to the detriment of young girls reaching puberty, contributing to health hazards such a bulimia, anorexia and depression.

But another side of this story is the extent to which Boomer women have also been Photoshop manipulated, underrepresented or even ignored in contemporary advertising, a topic that I've addressed several times, especially with respect to models gracing the pages of Chico's and REI catalogs.

In my most recently published business book Generation Reinvention, I analyze a number of social and political issues from the perspective of modern-day advertising and marketing. One of the topics is beauty marketing in a time when about one-third of all adult women in the U.S. are over age 50:

During the 1960s and 1970s, the second wave of feminism inculcated a revolutionary idea that "the personal is political," simply meaning that every aspect of our personal lives can be affected by the political environment in which we live and operate. Political and social forces can condition our personal lives. In contemporary marketing communications, Unilever's Dove soap integrated "the personal" with "the political" through a spectacular advertising campaign designed to strengthen the brand by repositioning "anti-aging" with a new product line called Pro Age. Dove set out to attract favorable attention from roughly 40 million Boomer women, many of whom seek mitigation of wrinkles and other obvious cosmetic signs of aging but who also resent unrealistic and limiting portrayals of beauty.

Dove took a direct approach by unveiling a provocative new marketing idea: instead of demonizing or denying wrinkles and other signs of aging with illusions of perfection widely perpetuated by anti-aging product marketers, Dove chose instead to celebrate aging by showcasing real middle-aged women, untouched by Photoshop or digital video equivalents.

In the spring of 2007, Dove unveiled its new campaign featuring magnificent photography shot by celebrity photographer and Boomer Annie Leibovitz. The Pro Age print, television and web ads feature full-figured women, none of whom are models and all of whom are over age 50.

My colleagues Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. and Marti Barletta, both authors of compelling books about marketing to Boomer women, speak and write with force and insight about the value of reaching today's middle-aged women with messages respectful of their self-perceptions, aspirations and practicalities about aging. These authors caution marketers to avoid the pitfalls of idealizing youth while avoiding realistic (but nevertheless aspirational) glimpses of middle-aged beauty.

The stakes in the cosmetic industry are slightly greater than high. Anti-aging skin care products reached worldwide sales of $13 billion in 2010, yet Dove's management found something disturbing through a study conducted in nine countries: "91% of women over 50 feel they're not represented realistically in the media." By implication, Boomer women feel nearly invisible in typical cosmetic advertising that glorifies impossibly perfect complexions of girls barely out of puberty.

According to Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and author of Survival of the Prettiest: the Science of Beauty, "We're seeing a real shift in how people are approaching beauty. Up to now, it's been about fighting aging with everything you have. Now you have a choice not to."

Millions of Boomer women, many of whom grew up embracing the ideals of women's liberation and other social movements to eliminate sexism from American business and society, are now pushing those values into the marketplace where anti-aging morphs logically into Pro Age. The personal becomes political once again. Or visa-versa.

Society finally recognized the deleterious consequences of cigarette advertising and its impact on teenagers in puberty, susceptible to both peer pressure and advertising mythologies. Now U.K. officials are forcing advertisers to identify perfected beauty in advertising for what it is: fictional representations, unattainable in real life.

Since the initial outcries of protest, Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has disallowed print ads in the U.K. that demonstrate too liberal application of Photoshop's beauty manipulating tools. The ASA has banned ads featuring facially perfected actresses such as Rachel Weisz for L'Oréal, Julia Roberts for Lancôme and Christy Turlington for Maybelline.

These steps can help young women accept more realistic portrayals of beauty. A forced transparency policy also may assist their mothers -- post-50 women -- make it back onto the pages of fashion advertising, portrayed as they are in Pro Age ads: realistically beautiful.

Not only is the emotional health of young women an issue of grave concern, Boomer women (and the men they love) have a significant stake in this battle between the beauty marketing industry and the British government.

Winning this policy battle in favor of truth-in-advertising can be one additional step toward a fully inclusive society in which people are judged more by the content of their character than by the color -- or age -- of their skin.

Excerpt from Generation Reinvention: How Boomers Today Are Changing Business, Marketing, Aging and the Future by Brent Green.