Advertisers and media brands should clean up their act when it comes to portraying young bodies if they want to survive, says ex-Cosmopolitan editor and publisher/editor of Mamamia.com.au, Mia Freedman.
Freedman's comments come amidst a wave of cautious support from the advertising and media industries for the government's Australian Positive Body Image Awards, launched last Friday.
The awards aim to promote positive body image in the media by rewarding those advertisers and media brands which promote healthy body image in a range of initiatives, from brand campaigns to editorial coverage to internal business practices.
While theoretically admirable, the question on everyone's lips is whether the awards will cause any real and meaningful change in the way the industry behaves. Will advertisers and fashion mags really alter their strategies in order to win a pat on the back from the government?
"It would be nice if they did," said BWM's national planning director Megan Hales, but regardless of whether they do it for the gong or not, Freedman (pictured) believes industry players should listen closely to the government's message if they want to protect their bottom lines.
"It's not about getting a gold star, it's about smart business," Freedman told B&T. "I think that any advertiser or publication or media company that ignores that does that to their own detriment."
Mama Mia points to the circulation dives which almost all the big fashion and beauty mags have taken in the past year as evidence for the public's exhaustion with perfection. "All you have to do is look at the circulations of magazines and see that customers and readers and clients are voting with their wallets. People are saying 'we are sick of these manufactured false images that are being portrayed to us. We want something else.'"
The awards came as a recommendation from a report conducted by the National Body Image Advisory Group in 2010. Freedman was an advisor on the panel, which also devised a 'Voluntary code of conduct on body image'. If the impact of the code is any indication, the awards will have little sway in changing entrenched practices.
"The voluntary code of conduct has been ineffective," said Freedman. "We were optimistic in hoping that the industry would get on board with things like declaring photoshop and… promoting more diversity in the models that they photographed but I'm sad to say that hasn’t happened at all. In fact the industry has probably put up their middle finger and roundly ignored that code of conduct."
But BWM's Megan Hales believes that the shift to positive body image is happening increasingly organically at a brand and agency level.
Brands like Dove, Berlei and Sanitarium are repeatedly referenced as those already tapping into the public's desire for positive and realistic representation of young bodies. The former two advocate 'real' female forms while Sanitarium increasingly features a diverse range of children's bodies in their campaign work.
But, according to Hales, audiences are still tempted by visions of the unattainable.
"Over the last couple of years, most agencies are making a concerted effort to align with these principles naturally… [but] by no means am I being overly optimistic. I think there are still a lot of issues around publishing and fashion and presenting an 'aspirational' image which consumers buy in to."
The main problem the awards face is that those brands which might predictably win are those brands for which warm and fuzzy body image is already a marketing cornerstone.
While the awards might preach to the choir, are they likely to cause any real change in regards to the practices of the main offenders - notably high fashion magazines and brands like Lynx and Zoo Weekly which are often attacked for unrealistic, unhealthy and objectifying portrayals of women?
"Brands like Lynx are generally irreverent mavericks in their category and that is how they get share of voice and brand awareness… Part of their appeal is that they break the rules," said Hales. Because of this, she notes, real change can only come from the consumers themselves, rather than a governing body.
Furthermore, could the awards provoke an industry backlash - another raised 'middle finger' from advertisers to the government for trying to intervene in matters of creativity?
Moon Communcations' brand strategy director, Daye Moffit thinks not. "I don’t see it as a way of reducing creativity," she said. "In many ways it challenges them to send more positive creative images to the public. Advertising can often be seen in such a negative light so it’s a way of creating a more positive story around what we do."
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