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Should beauty filters on social media be regulated?

Réseaux sociaux : doit-on encadrer les filtres de beauté ?
Published on
13 April 2021

The "ETIC" research program is being led by a team of academics from France, Belgium and Canada. The program aims to investigate the adverse effects that digital images can potentially cause, with specific focus on the impact that beauty filters can have on users who are most exposed to the pressures of today's beauty ideals.

Interview with Laurie Balbo, Associate Professor of Marketing and Program Director for the Grenoble Ecole de Management MSc in Marketing Management. She has co-written an article for The Conversation, alongside Aurélie Lao, Associate Professor of Marketing - IAE Lille / University of Lille, Director of the DistriSup Lille professional bachelor's program and Joint National Communication Manager for the DistriSup Network, and Sandra Camus, Professor and Director of the Research Group in Economics and Management (GRANEM) at the University of Angers.

What prompted you to launch this particular research project?

Our research efforts actually dovetail with a wider-ranging project known as "ETIC" (EffecTs of digital Images on Consumers). The main aim behind the ETIC project is to understand how communication strategies using digital images can turn society upside-down and, in certain situations, lead to an adverse effect on individuals. 

Our project encompasses digital advertising and promotional images (featured on digital displays in the public domain and posts on social networking sites), as well as digital images that everyday users upload to their social network pages for self-promotional reasons. People consuming digital images and using visually-driven social media (Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) may actually experience short-term or long-term adverse effects from overexposure to digital images or from their failure to use, exploit or interpret such images in the proper way.

As part of our project, we are looking to gain clearer insights into how beauty filters are used. These filters allow users to create more flattering photos of themselves. Prime examples include Photoshop, GIMP and PhotoScape. The results of our combined efforts will be instrumental in identifying preventive communication strategies for raising awareness of the risks among users, organizations (advertisers, media agencies, etc.), public authorities and regulatory agencies (governing marketing practices, electronic communications, personal data, etc.). Our team comprises a number of researchers specializing in marketing, social psychology, cognitive psychology and sociology from France, Belgium and Canada.

We have applied to ANR (France's national research agency) to secure funding for the ETIC project, and they are currently reviewing our application. We are expecting to receive their decision during the summer of 2021. We are ultimately aiming to carry out qualitative and quantitative studies using an array of sophisticated techniques (netnography, semiotic analysis of images, facial expression measurements, physiological measurements, eye movement measurements, and so on), which call for significant material resources and manpower.

What are your initial findings?

France's legislative system occasionally takes a long time to embrace the latest marketing practices, even though scientific literature has shown that some types of users are more vulnerable to subliminal digital images, especially young people and women, and also under greater pressure to conform to today's beauty ideals. In practice, images that are "too perfect" end up causing a rift with reality. Plastic surgeons in the United States are facing growing demand from patients who want to undergo facial cosmetic surgery in an attempt to resemble their touched-up selfies! Therefore, our question is as follows: does the general public's use of professional promotional techniques (such as photo touch-up apps) harm their well-being? At the same time, initiatives championing self-acceptance and natural beauty are gaining traction over social media sites. The natural makeup challenge and the body-positive movement illustrate this particular trend. 

The issue of transparency also needs to be addressed. For example, if a cosmetics brand pays online influencers to tout its product's advantages among their followers, to what extent are they allowed to use beauty filters? Although the effects with some filters are easy to spot, others are impossible to detect (especially filters used for touching up selfies), which raises a number of problems concerning their effect on society.

The United Kingdom has recently brought in legislation banning influencers from using beauty filters when promoting products over Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Would you like to see France take similar steps?

We would like to make it clear that we are not against beauty filters. But we would like to take a closer look at the potential harm that they can cause over social media, especially since they can be used without requiring any special skills. Therefore, we are raising question marks about these types of digital images and their impact when disseminated among a mass audience.

In May 2017, France enacted legislation that requires any commercial photos depicting professional models or other subjects to feature an "enhanced photo" label if the photo has been altered to produce a slimmer or fuller figure. That label may be written in fine print, but it is still mandatory. The question today is knowing whether similar measures should be taken for digitally altered images.

What is the purpose of your research project?

The aim of our research is to lobby for large-scale prevention and communication campaigns to alert users to the potentially harmful effects of beauty filters. We are working alongside a leading partner, namely France's advertising regulatory authority (ARPP), which controls advertising practices through campaigns to raise awareness of best practices.

We are also planning to deliver a series of talks at various high schools to warn the younger generation of how the use of such filters can easily slip out of control and how such filters seemingly encourage them to achieve a standard level of beauty... that is not actually a standard at all!

This wide-ranging research project harbors strong ambitions of encouraging public health policies to address the issue.

Read the article in The Conversation

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