The Aesthetics of Artificiality

Julia Roberts smiles for the camera. Her head is slightly tilted. The left hand resting behind her neck is projecting an image of a woman comfortable in her body – a woman comfortable in her skin. The product that Julia Roberts is promoting in the advertisement for Lancôme is called Teint Miracle. And indeed, the ‘miracle’ that the advertisement is referring to here is that, at the age of 43, Julia Roberts looks virtually the same age as when she played Pretty Woman (1990) more than two decades ago. In other words, by virtue of the skin products she uses, pretty woman does not age. She literally dips her face in tint (from Latin tinctus: to dye) so that she looks forever young. Similar to thousands of similar ads targeted at female consumers, there is nothing unusual about this particular campaign by Lancôme.

What makes this ad different is that it has been recently banned in the United Kingdom by the Advertising Standards Authority ASA. The ban followed a long and hard fought campaign by the 31-year-old Member of Parliament Jo Swinson from the Liberal Democrats. Swinson argued that the photograph is overtly airbrushed and misrepresents the capabilities of the product. Along with the Lancôme ad, a similar ad for Maybelline’s The Eraser featuring Christy Turlington has also been banned. The apparent airbrushing of the photograph is in fact an integral part of the Maybelline ad as Turlington’s face displays parts of the skin that are ‘natural’ and parts of the skin in which blemishes have been successfully ‘erased’. What I first misunderstood as a cruel online joke turned out to be the actual ad as Turlington’s face is covered in descriptive parts which The Eraser should be able to cover up: ‘Dark circles’, ‘Fine lines’ and the ubiquitous and purposefully scary sounding ‘Crow’s feet’. The Maybelline ad sets out a world of binary oppositions in which perceived imperfections are juxtaposed with skin where imperfections have vanished.

From the thousands of ads targeted at female consumers, why have these two particular ads been banned? Rather than being related to the content of the ads or the products they advertise, I would argue that the ban is more likely related to the age of the woman depicted. Julia Roberts (43) and Christy Turlington (42) are middle-aged women yet in the artificial world of advertising their skin is made to look like that of a woman half their age. Particularly the Maybelline ad also throws up another aspect in the dispute regarding these campaigns: any imperfections of a woman’s face, as it is overtly suggested in the ad, must be erased. Indeed, the ideological agenda promoted by Maybelline is in fact deeply related to the retouching of photographs via a software called Photoshop (it is no coincidence that Photoshop has a tool called ‘Eraser’).

The Lancôme and Maybelline ads suggest that the standards of beauty are slowly starting to shift. While in the past feminine beauty might be related to the face, skin and body appearing youthful and healthy, Teint Miracle and The Eraser strongly suggest that the a new standard of beauty is the very fakeness that heavily Photoshopped images have helped to sustain and promote. In other words, the paradigm of beauty is a computer generated and humanly unattainable image of perfection. One might argue that such paradigm has existed since the dawn of photography, or more specifically the increasing photographic representation of Hollywood actresses in the 1930s and 1940s. Historic photographs of female celebrities have consistently been manipulated in the photographic darkroom. Such manipulation has, however, always been as hidden and concealed as possible. In the case of Maybelline’s The Eraser, the manipulation of photograph and woman’s face alike is overt, aggressive even violent (in the photograph it looks as if The Eraser created the letter X straight across Turlington’s face).


Maybelline’s mascara called Falsies

Other beauty products similarly suggest that the paradigm of beauty is increasingly related to a visual culture of fakery and artificiality. Of course there are products such as fake tan, padding for bras, hair extensions or fake eyelashes. Here, I am however referring to another type of product such as a mascara by Maybelline called Falsies. While fake eyelashes are made to appear like naturally long eyelashes, Maybelline’s Falsies, on the other hand, represent an almost comical inversion: here natural eyelashes are made to appear like artificial and fake lashes. On the Maybelline website Falsies are described as following:

‘The Falsies Mascara delivers a false lash look; giving you a full set of voluminous, bold, fanned out lashes and the appearance of no gaps from any angle.’

The very name Falsies alludes to the falseness that the product is supposed to create. Surprisingly, there are a number of products out there that are very similar to Maybelline’s Falsies: Maxfactor developed a mascara called False Lash Effect while in the United Kingdom the make-up company 17 (owned by the drugstore chain Boots) sells a mascara ingeniously branded as Falsifeye. It is difficult to tell if in the future other beauty products might be developed in a similar direction:

– a sunscreen that creates a natural tan that looks, however, like a fake tan
– a hairspray that supports natural hair so that it looks like hair with extensions
– a pad that, instead of making breast look naturally large, purposefully makes breasts look as if they have had ‘work done’

My point is that the banned ads discussed in this post represent, along with new products such as Falsies, the emergence of a standard of beauty which, rather than disguising fakery or falsities, are actually embracing the very artificiality reinforced by the advertising industry. In the case of the Lancôme and Maybelline ads, the beauty a woman should desire is not that of ‘ageless’ women such as Julia Roberts or Christy Turlington. Rather, it is the ability to manipulate the face like Photoshop manipulates a photograph that turns a woman into a pretty woman.

For more on the representation of gender in the media, please read my posts The Perfume Ad Formula and Banning the ‘Amateurish’ American Apparel Ads.

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One thought on “The Aesthetics of Artificiality

  1. Actually, it *is* a coincidence that there’s a tool in Photoshop called the Eraser. The eraser tool is for erasing (as in, completely removing or deleting). It’s not a retouching tool.

    Fascinating blog, though. I enjoyed your examination of the Obama administration “Situation Room” photo.

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