Like many other Western countries, France requires health warnings on tobacco and alcohol and similar labels on processed food containing genetically modified ingredients. France's regulators are also notoriously tough on marketing campaigns that make false product claims. Now some French legislators want to take consumer protection to an unprecedented level, requiring that advertisements, product labels and even campaign posters carry a warning when they feature a photograph that's been digitally enhanced.
The drive against airbrushed photos is being headed by conservative parliamentarian Valérie Boyer, who says the widespread use of digital technology to alter images is feeding the public a steady visual diet of falsified people, places and products. This artificial reality leads people to expect perfection from themselves and the world in an impossible way, she says. "When writers take a news item or real event and considerably embellish it, they are required to alert readers by calling the work fiction, a novel or a story based on dramatized facts. Why should it be any different for photographs?" Boyer asks. "Rules on food-labeling let consumers know the origins of the contents and the presence of things like additives and preservatives. What's wrong with ... informing them when photographs have also been modified from their original form?"
Advertisers would argue that doing so undermines the allure of perfectly photographed people and places in marketing campaigns, which, in many cases, is what sells. A svelte model with perfect skin, for example, is likely to make you want to eat high-fiber cereal more than a model with visible imperfections. Perhaps, says Boyer, but she believes that passing enhanced imagery off as the real thing is misleading. Her proposed legislation would require doctored photos meant for public distribution to carry the warning "Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person." Anyone violating the rule could be fined about $55,000. Since she presented her draft to parliamentary committees in September, Boyer has been joined by more than 50 other legislators who want to see it introduced as formal legislation and voted on in the coming months.
Boyer's effort is not motivated only by a fear that consumers are being taken for a ride. She also feels that the idealized beauty in such photos is giving people false expectations of how the world should look and how they should look as well. Because digitally enhanced photos are often used in mass-marketing campaigns for everything from soft drinks to luxury cars to travel packages, Boyer says the images are gradually leading to a standardization of what is considered beautiful and by extension, what isn't.
"It's creating parallel worlds: one in which everything in ads and photos is gorgeous, slim, chic and what we aspire to, and our daily reality of imperfection, normality and frustration that we can't be like those other people who literally don't exist," she says.
The advertising and marketing industries would clearly be the most affected by Boyer's proposed law. But her draft also calls for warnings on art photography, press releases and even political posters that have been similarly digitally enhanced. The French media have had fun with the possibility of warnings being placed on political ads, recalling the 2007 vacation photograph of a shirtless President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris Match magazine in which his bulging love handles were erased to give him a hunkier form. Boyer a member of Sarkozy's party meets such sniggering with a swipe of her own.
"President Sarkozy was dragged through the mud about that by media that routinely alter photographs without anyone knowing about it, and by politicians who don't hesitate to have their own pictures modified to remove wrinkles, bags or hanging skin," she says.
Boyer has also authored a pending law awaiting upper-house approval that calls for prison terms and fines for people who encourage and promote anorexia, like those who run so-called pro-ana websites and blogs. However, she says her new proposal was written less out of concern that perfect figures in doctored photos were driving women to develop eating disorders and more out of a fear that enhanced images were giving the public an intentionally fabricated picture of reality.
If Boyer's proposal does happen to pass in Parliament, how likely is it that the warnings will gain acceptance in France? In a country where beauty is revered, it's hard to say how people will feel about defacing it with a large black-and-white warning label.