Where does ‘Real’ Beauty meet Artificial Tech?
It was only a few years ago that we were accustomed, if reluctantly, to being surrounded by deceptive images of women in advertising. Consumer culture largely resigned itself to seeing waves of heavily Photo-shopped ads, displaying blemish-free skin and streamlined bodies as archetypal beauty – conversely seeing Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign of 2004 as radically forward-thinking and refreshing. By 2017, it’s indisputably in vogue for brands to verge in the opposite direction of those deceptive, narrowed archetypes of ‘beautiful’ (narrow) women. From the defiant aftermath of the ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign, to the celebration of H&M’s ‘#Ladylike’ ad, to Covergirl & James Charles, it’s clear – rejecting traditionally idealised body types and beauty norms is no longer an anomaly, but a requisite for contemporary appeal. What unites the most exciting, effective depictions of beauty & identity now is a sense of diversity and honesty (not sameness and conformity).
Alongside this admirable progression, however, are 2 co-existing tensions. The rejection of the standardizing ‘gaze’ in advertising comes at the same time as the dominance of the Attention Economy. In an age of constant distraction enabled by tech, all brands are competing viciously for our attention (how many tabs do you have open alongside this article?). Diversified definitions of beauty are a worthy and, hopefully, enduring cause: at the same time, consumers are quick to perceive that brands employ diversified beauty to grab our much-coveted attention. It’s not just that presenting certain body types or identities is ‘bad’; it’s not new, i.e. not attention grabbing. When diversity through honesty is no longer new – for brands from H&M to L’Oréal – how will they innovate in a way that maintains inclusivity while capturing the Attention Economy?
Onto the second tension: alongside the emergence of ‘real beauty’ from brands, we’ve seen a rise in consumer-led filtration of images, and popular, digital self-alteration of our selves (or, selfies). Apps like ModiFace and MakeupPlus create a pixelated, augmented self we can polish as we please. The demise of default-airbrush mode in ads has coincided with beautifying Instagram filters and Snapchat features that reshape the nose, slim the face and brighten the skin. As top-down, branded imagery aspires to communicate ‘real’ consumers, it increasingly differs from a wealth of peer-to-peer, consumer created imagery, which itself is steadily becoming less ‘real’.
How can brands manage this tricky public gaze – one that rejects conventional, technologically fabricated beauty standards, whilst also creating excitement and playing with technological possibilities? The answer is found in analysis of the underlying meanings of each trend. The rise of diverse, honest images of beauty is underpinned by a number of semiotic meanings; one clear key is to give the consumer a sense of control. When Lyst showcased their ‘Humannequins’ – nude human models virtually dressed by window-shoppers – they recognised popular enthusiasm for augmented reality. Beyond that, however, they were ‘tapping’ into our love of being in control. Advertisers selling images of ‘real bodies’, along with apps that help you digitally alter yours, are united by the suggestion of permission. Brands seeking to communicate real beauty in an artificially enhanced world must prioritise the consumer’s control over just what beauty means to them today.
– Katrina Russell