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One of filmmaker Elena Rossini’s favorite scenes from her upcoming documentary The Illusionists is a split-screen image of two advertisements, one for self-tanning lotion and the other for skin-whitening cream. On one side, a Caucasian woman caresses her cheek and the skin beneath her hand magically bronzes while on the other side, an Asian woman performs the exact same gesture and the skin under her fingers lightens. The punch line? Both ads were created by the same brand.

If that seems like inherently contradictory messaging, Rossini points out that the larger meaning is singular: It’s not that tanner skin is more beautiful or vice versa—it’s that any tone of skin not augmented by beauty products is not beautiful enough.

Rossini spent seven years making The Illusionists, a documentary that looks at unrealistic images of the human body in advertising around the world. The story is the same in New York, Paris, Tokyo and Beirut: brands surround their customers with images of unattainable beauty for the simple reason that people who feel insecure about their looks are people who buy products.

From submissive sex object to powerful athlete, we’ve come a long way, baby. Pamela Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images, cites these two top-selling images tagged “woman” from 2007 (left) and 2014 (right) as evidence of progress.

This sad logic is nearly as old as the advertising industry itself. “As early as 1904, advertisers started to hire psychologists to make their campaigns more efficient,” Rossini says. A Freudian analyst named Ernest Dichter, hugely influential in the industry from the late 1930s to the 1960s, demonstrated that people were more likely to buy products if they were in a state of anxiety and the product was posed as a remedy for their disquiet. To this day, Rossini says, “there’s an investment in keeping people in a constant state of anxiety so we’ll keep buying.”

So ads don’t usually represent real, everyday people—not exactly a shocking revelation. Advertising images are “aspirational,” showing us the people we could be if we had better shampoo or a nicer refrigerator. But they also represent human specimens you’ll never find in nature. Even the rare and idealized bodies of professional models are liberally retouched by digital artists who carve waists, elongate limbs and rearrange facial features.

The trouble is that these images do more than instill within us the desire to buy toothpaste and tennis shoes. In a larger sense, they define what’s acceptable in terms of how we look, how we act and what we should aspire to be.

During the years that Rossini worked on the film, however, high-quality cell phone cameras proliferated around the globe. Most people now have a camera in their pocket or purse at all times, one that captures images and videos that can rival what the pros produce. Social media, meanwhile, provides a sprawling, open-source global publishing platform, putting billions of pictures of real people into worldwide circulation. Visual culture has undergone a democratic revolution.

“People have become much more keen critics of the illusions that go on in mass media,” Rossini says. “Seven years ago, there was not a conversation about this. Now, it has exploded.” And brands are starting to edge—albeit cautiously—toward images of real people. “Authenticity” has become a buzzword. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has helped boost the company’s annual sales by more than $1.5 billion. “There’s a very powerful argument that we can move to a new phase in advertising, from ‘insecurity sells’ to ‘empowerment sells,’” Rossini says.

Pamela Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images, has similar faith in the ability of our current social media–fueled visual culture to push companies toward a more inclusive era of adver­tising. Grossman, who teamed up with Rossini at this year’s 3% Conference to discuss images of women in mass media, is part of a global team that studies patterns in the use of stock images in order to analyze what’s happening in visual culture and predict what will happen next. She says there has been a significant, and refreshing, change in the depiction of femininity. “The spectrum of what is acceptable and desirable for women’s looks is really expanding,” she says, largely thanks to the influence of cell phone photography and social media.

Stock photos can veer toward absurdly stereotypical images, particularly when they’re pictures of women—just last year, the glut of stock photos depicting “women laughing alone with salad” became an Internet meme—but this is changing. Over the last five years, Getty’s sales of pictures tagged with both “business” and “woman” went up 25 percent. In 2014, Grossman worked with Sheryl Sandberg to launch the Lean In Collection, a library of images that show women and girls in situations that suggest power and independence rather than solitary dietetic meals, and sales have been hugely successful. “We’re still going to have images of women looking sexy in a bikini,” Grossman says, “and I don’t actually have a problem with that in itself. My problem is when it’s the only option that we’re given, the only thing we’re expected to aspire to look like or be like.”
Grossman also notes that Getty’s sales of images tagged “father” have gone up 15 percent in five years, and she’s seen a notable increase in what she calls “dadvertising.” Traditionally, ads involving a household setting show men who are goofy and inept, tossing children in the air or making a mess in the kitchen. But more ads now are showing men being physically affectionate and attentive parents, men who hold babies and know how a mop works.

These changes might seem long overdue, but Grossman says the fact that they’re finally happening has a lot to do with social sharing. “We are all rendering ourselves more visible,” she says. “What’s largely been responsible for the breakdown of gender expectations is the way in which we actually live and operate in the world.”

On runways and in fashion magazines, androgynous beauty is nothing new. But in the world of advertising, pressure is mounting for more authentic depictions of gender fluidity and homosexuality. Relatable images, like these three from Shutterstock, are slowly replacing the largely clownish or play-acted images tagged “lesbian” and “transgender” formerly found in stock collections.

Grossman says these basic changes in the depiction of men’s and women’s roles are leading toward a profound rethinking of the very concept of gender. “We’re realizing that the construct of gender as a binary is just that, it’s a construct,” she says. The next visual trend predicted by Getty is one in which the boundaries between male and female are decidedly permeable. This is especially true for images of children, as toys, books and even clothing are moving away from highly gendered pink-or-blue, princess-or–Power Ranger distinctions. In stock photography, there are more images of boys in tiaras and girls in mud puddles. “When it comes to kids, anything goes now,” Grossman says. “Think of what the stereotype is and completely go against it.”

For examples in the adult world, Grossman points toward Selfridges, a chain of department stores in the United Kingdom that announced in January that it would “sweep aside the boundaries of gender in retail” with a new campaign called Agender, which involves a section of the store devoted to clothing, shoes and accessories that are neither “his” nor “hers.” Searches for the word “transgender” on Getty Images have gone up fivefold in the last five years, a phenom­e­non Grossman ascribes to the increasing visibility of transgender individuals in pop culture and social media. Facebook, she notes, recently introduced a list of more than 50 different terms users can select to describe their gender identity. Getty itself has updated its keyword tree with vocabulary that is respect­ful of the trans­gender community and inclusive of many different points along the spec­trum from masculinity to femininity.


At 5'5" tall and a US size 20, Tess Holliday became the first signed plus-size model of her proportions in January. Savvy London modeling agency MiLK Management signed the Los Angeles–based model to its Curve division, to meet increasing demand for models of all shapes and sizes.

Representing a community that has long faced discrimination and abuse is not to be taken lightly. A few major brands, however, have recently created sensitive and honest campaigns featuring trans­gender models, notably Barneys’ Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters campaign, shot by Bruce Weber, for which many of the models were discovered and recruited through social media. In March of this year, Clean & Clear cast transgender teen activist and YouTube star Jazz Jennings as the face of its See the Real Me campaign.

“The power of social media as a catalyst for change gives me so much hope,” Rossini says, particularly because it gives consumers the ability to talk back to brands. In 2012, 14-year-old Julia Bluhm started an online petition asking Seventeen to include at least one unretouched photo spread in every issue—and it worked. “The Internet has made us creators and broadcasters,” Rossini says. “A 14-year-old blogger can be heard as loud and clear as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.” It won’t make the pictures of perfection go away, but the more we see real people, depicted with nuance and sensitivity—what Grossman calls “the self in all its holistic complications”—the easier it becomes to see the illusion for what it is. ca
Sara Breselor (sarabreselor.wordpress.com) is a San Francisco–based writer and the editor of the IDEO Labs website. She’s a regular contributor to Wired and the Harper’s Weekly Review, and her writing has also appeared in Idiom magazine, Salon and Slate.

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