The Impact of Advertising on Body Image

Can Today’s Ads Be Harmful to Our Self-Esteem?

Khloe Kardashian advertising poster
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John Keeble/Getty Images

Advertising is often a reflection of pop culture and societal trends; however, it can also shape them. Over the last 20-30 years, we have witnessed a strong correlation between advertising and body image, and the effects can be devastating. While it mostly affects women and girls, men and boys are not immune.

Here are some statistics from Joel Miller’s article on media and body image that may be shocking to read:

  • On average, most models weigh 23% less than the average woman. Twenty years ago, this difference was a mere 8%.
  • Problems with eating disorders have increased over 400% since 1970.
  • Only 5% of US women fit the body type popularly portrayed in today's advertising.
  • Sixty-nine percent of girls concurred that models found in magazines had a major influence on their concept of what a perfect body shape should look like.

Dove, a Unilever brand, has made great attempts to portray women realistically. Despite their efforts to counter the growing body image problem, it is painfully obvious that most ad campaigns still portray women and men as physically perfect, with semi-naked women showing not an ounce of fat and semi-naked men having the rippling physique of He-Man. The only time we see ordinary people is when they are used as a comparison to fit models or when they are used for comedic appeal; this is a real problem.

The average ad for perfume or cologne usually contains a male or female model or a celebrity because empirical data has proven that the general public responds better to images of aspiration. Namely, “I’m wearing the same perfume as Mr. or Miss Gorgeous; therefore, I am like them.” Similarly, fast cars = sexy women and men. The underlying message is "If you buy this car, you can be or attract these kinds of people." The same goes for alcohol, jewelry, watches, computers, phones, and even food. A long-running Carl’s Jr.

campaign primarily used busty models in skimpy clothing eating burgers that, in real life, they would rarely or never eat.

Then, there’s the issue of image manipulation. The physically perfect specimens seen in advertising do not exist. Even these genetically-blessed people are treated to rounds of Photoshop treatments. Every blemish and wrinkle is removed, buttocks are tightened, waists are trimmed, and legs and arms are lengthened. Most of the time, we accept it as the real image until the photo manipulation goes so far that it becomes obvious that there has been retouching.

This can be glossed over as harmless or simply a facet of modern society that we must accept. However, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous. Ad critic Jean Kilbourne spoke in 2015 about the toxic effects of modern advertising campaigns and the link to eating disorders.

“Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day,” said Kilbourne. “And failure to live up to them is inevitable because they are based on a flawlessness that doesn’t exist.”

With the popularity of social media and the ability to openly and freely share opinions, it’s more dangerous than ever. Cyberbullying is a huge problem, which can lead to depression and suicide. While advertising cannot assume full responsibility, the role it plays in creating images of physical perfection cannot be ignored.

The evidence shows links between advertising and negative body image and self-esteem in both sexes. So, what can be done? Unfortunately, not much without society demanding change.

While campaigns for real beauty will continue to try and break the mold, advertisers will not change until the public votes for it with their wallets. After all, advertising agencies and the companies they represent are in this for gain. Until the public responds more favorably to images of real people, very little is going to change. However, we can put pressure on brands to represent us in more realistic ways, especially by calling it out on social media. Of course, we should do whatever we can to educate children and young adults that advertising is not a reflection of what we should be but a convenient fantasy designed to sell something.