I hope that you’ve some appetite left for the advertising standards debate, for today marked yet another instalment in the rigmarole of Nanny v. the AdMan. Following objections from LibDem MP Jo Swinson, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned L’Oreal ads featuring Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington. Apparently the ads are sufficiently airbrushed as to be “misleading” under the advertising standards code.
Swinson’s problem is that the ads are “not representative of the results the product could achieve.” This is a strange charge, as in a sense that is surely true of all advertising. Sudden transport to some solstitial dune thick with beach-ready babes is unlikely to be one of the effects of drinking light beer, but we allow Budweiser advertisements that suggest this. Indeed, it is plainly misleading to suggest that any foundation will make you look like Julia Roberts or Christy Turlington – airbrushed or not. Advertisements often hint at things that can never be guaranteed, and drawing a bright red line at greater-than-average airbrushing is arbitrary.
Even if some clear line could be delineated, though, I would still see no reason to prohibit this kind of ‘misleading’ advertisements. A ban is only justified to prevent a serious harm and when there is a direct and necessary causality between an action and that harm. These adverts should not be forbidden under either criterion. First, the only direct harm I can see is that women might be disappointed. This is not enough to limit freedom of expression; there is no right not to misspend.
Second, though, there is no direct causality between ads and greater harms. The problem that Swinson is really targeting is low self-esteem and its associated evils: eating disorders, depression, and self-harm. Body image issues are serious, but they are not a reason to censor advertisements. The fact is that not everyone who sees an airbrushed advertisement will suffer because of it, and we cannot ban everything that maybe, might harm some people. We criminalise poisoning, not leaving cleaning products lying around.
Swinson’s agitation comes from a good place, but it is misguided. We hold our right to freedom of expression too dearly to violate it on the grounds that Swinson and the ASA present. Just because the expression in question comes from a big, bad corporation does not make it any less worthy of protection. Here’s hoping that the next blow in the never-ending ad standards saga comes for freedom of speech.