The Impact of Advertising on Body Image

Can Today’s Ads Be Harmful to Our Self-Esteem?

Look in mirror
How do we see ourselves?. Getty Images

Advertising is not just a reflection of pop culture and societal trends; in many ways, it can influence them as well. And over the last 20-30 years, the links between advertising and body image cannot be ignored. While the vast majority of these effects are on women and girls, the growing effects on men and boys cannot be ignored either.

Here are some statistics that will probably shock you, from Joel Miller’s excellent article on media and body image:

  • Most models weigh an average of 23 percent less than a typical woman. Twenty years ago, this difference was a mere 8 percent.
  • Problems with eating disorders have increased over 400 percent since the year 1970.
  • Only 5 percent of women in the US actually fit the current body type popularly portrayed in advertising today.
  • 69 percent of girls concurred that models found in magazines had a major influence on their concept of what a perfect body shape should look like.

Despite Dove’s attempts to show real women in their advertisements, it is painfully obvious that ad campaigns portray women and men as physically “perfect,” with semi-naked women showing not an ounce of fat, and semi-naked men having the rippling physique of He-Man. The only time we see “ordinary” people are when they are used as a comparison to the fit models, or they are used in a humorous way, and this is a real problem.

The average ad for perfume or cologne usually contains a male or female model, or a movie star.

Sadly, this is because research has proven, time and again, that the general public responds better to images of aspiration. Namely, “I’m wearing the same perfume as Mr. or Miss gorgeous, therefore, I’m in their camp.” Fast cars = sexy women and men. The message—if you buy this car, you can attract these kinds of people.

The same goes for alcohol, jewelry, watches, computers, phones, and even food. Until the recent Carl’s Jr. campaign, it’s ads primarily used busty models in skimpy clothing eating burgers they would rarely, if ever, eat in real life in order to maintain their shape.  

Then, there’s the issue of image manipulation. The physically perfect specimens seen in advertising do not exist. Even these people who are genetically blessed are treated to rounds of Photoshop treatments. Every blemish and wrinkle it removed. Buttocks are tightened. Waists are trimmed. Legs and arms are lengthened. Most of the time we accept it as the real image, until the photo manipulation goes so far overboard that it becomes painfully obvious the man or woman in the image has been retouched.

It can be easy to gloss over this as harmless; simply a facet of modern society that we all endure because that’s the way advertising is. However, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous. Ad critic Jean Kilbourne spoke in 2015 about the toxic effects of modern advertising campaigns, and the link to eating disorders.

“Women and girls compare themselves to these images every day,” said Kilbourne. “And failure to live up to them is inevitable because they are based on a flawlessness that doesn’t exist.”

Now, with the popularity of social media, and teenagers everywhere having the ability to berate and body shame other teens, it’s more dangerous than ever before. Cyberbullying is a huge problem, and can lead to depression and even suicide. While this cannot all be blamed on advertising, the role it plays in creating images of physical perfection cannot be ignored.

The evidence clearly shows links between advertising and negative body image and self-esteem, in both sexes. So what can be done to combat it? Not a lot.

While campaigns for real beauty will continue to try and break the mold, advertisers will not change until the public votes for it with their wallets. After all, advertising agencies, and the companies they represent, are first and foremost in this for the money. And until the public responds more favorably to images of real people, very little is going to change.

However, we can all put pressure on brands to represent us in more realistic ways, especially by calling it out on social media. And of course, we should all do whatever we can to educate the children and young adults of the world that advertising is not a reflection of what we should be, but rather, a convenient fantasy designed to sell something.