A close-up on a woman’s face – left eye and side of nose

Can changing nothing change everything?

CVS Pharmacy in the US have recently caused a stir in the beauty industry for their pledge to phase out all edited or altered beauty imagery in their stores by 2020. Their shoppers already see a ‘CVS Beauty Mark’ on some photos, which is, according to the CVS website, “a watermark that appears on imagery that is authentic and has NOT been materially altered.”

This is a powerful move by CVS, who operate over 9600 stores and is the largest pharmacy chain the in the US. They are also working with brand partners to make sure that their altered images are visibly labelled, a statement that has not gone without comment by beauty commentators worldwide, with many rightly questioning whether this is the beginning of an industry-wide movement towards ‘real beauty’. Certainly, the indicators are there, and body-positive campaigns have already affected what we see on catwalks and commercials. Are we seeing the beginnings of a global change in beauty advertising?

“It’s a great idea, but the application of it? I’d be very interested to see how that works,” says Canon Ambassador Clive Booth, a fashion, beauty and portrait photographer who has worked with some of the biggest names in beauty. He’s a big advocate for getting the perfect shot ‘in-camera’ but is realistic about the day-to-day challenges for photographers and the brands involved, most of whom have traditionally depend on projecting an image of ‘perfection’. “If your model turns up and she’s got a big spot on her cheek, you are going to have to remove it. You’re not going to stop the whole shoot.”

A close-up of a model’s made-up lips
© Clive Booth
 A close up of a model’s made-up eye
© Clive Booth

It’s a reminder that there are, of course, financial implications across the industry if this approach to beauty advertising becomes the norm. It raises the question of what will happen to professional retouchers, and – disturbingly – models who may not be blessed with absolutely flawless skin? “Often models are very young. They might well have a spot on their face”, says Clive. “I work with retouchers when the job requires it. There are a lot out there – focusing on skin, that’s all they do. They’re specialists in fashion photography.”

Clive’s agent, Mark George, will believe it when he sees it. Mark has represented some of the world’s biggest names in photography and his outlook is reflective of a career spent engaging with global brands on their behalf. “You’re selling a product and you want people to think of that product in its best light. If it's a skincare product then you show skin that’s perfect,” He explains. “It’s the same deal with any product – it could be whisky. When we shoot whisky, we have to shoot it so that the colour is absolutely right. It’s been like that forever, I really cannot see it changing.”

Which one of the cosmetic companies it going to be first to break the mould?

Clive disagrees, to a degree. “I think the challenge is, if they want perfection then what does perfection mean? People like Nick Knight champion bringing models to the fore who challenge the conventional standards of beauty. We’re now seeing all different shapes and sizes of people [in advertising], so my personal feeling is that this is a good idea and a good thing.”

One thing they both agree on, however, is the importance of truth and authenticity when presenting images to the public. “It’s terribly sad in many ways,” says Clive. “Young people feel under pressure to look a certain way more than any other time in history, so this has to be a positive thing.” CVS President Helena Foulkes acknowledges this is in the strongest terms in a statement to the press as she launched Beauty Unaltered: “I realise we have a responsibility to think about the messages we send to the customers we reach each day," Foulkes said. "The connection between the propagation of unrealistic body images and negative health effects, especially in girls and young women, has been established.”

The public response has been overwhelmingly positive, with many thousands of selfies uploaded to Twitter and Instagram, accompanied by the hashtag #BeautyUnaltered and comments such as “Because freckles are cute! No more digital retouching images @cvspharmacy – so proud of this!”. As Clive says, “it won’t happen overnight”, but it seems that if the consumer is ready for real, then brands will have no choice but to sit up and take note. The industry will no doubt be watching in earnest to see if CVS can keep up the momentum needed to change the way beauty products are advertised forever.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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