Polemic for 22 September 2000
on Digitally Modified Ads...
The University of Wisconsin recently took some flak because it put out a brochure that featured a digitally-modified photograph on the front cover. They took a picture of a bunch of white kids at one of their football games and slipped in a head of a black guy. I am outraged at the outrage this generated.
I'm sure a few people were rankled by the crass tokenism, as was I, but it seemed that most of the controversy centered upon the digital modification of the photograph. Everyone was going on about how this new technology required a revisiting of our ethical standards to see if they can hold up under the strain of scientific advancement yadda yadda yadda...
Baloney. Whatta load of hypocrisy. I know how to digitally modify a picture, and there's nothing different in doing it than in using a razor and an airbrush like Stalin's regime used back in the 1920's through the 1950's. It's just easier with a graphics tablet and a good computer. Nobody should be extra mad because a computer was used.
The whole idea of expecting truth in advertising is ludicrous to begin with. An ad is propaganda for a product, rather than a political idea. Why should it strive to tell you a complete story about something, so you can make an honest, well-thought-out decision? The advertisers got 60 seconds or less to hook you and make you want to run out and grab you some of whatever it is they're pushing. Truth in advertising? What we really want is no outrageous lies or omissions of truth that will result in injury, loss of life, or loss of undue amounts of property.
So what did the University of Wisconsin do? They advertised. Just less than 10% of their students are minorities. From where they slipped in the head of the former African-American student, I'd say he got less than 10% of the picture. Now the picture reflected a certain reality they were trying to convey, rather than the reality the original photograph captured. The university could have staged a photograph, but that would have cost more than taking what was a pretty good shot and adding a few elements, making it a de facto staged shot.
I don't see anything wrong with that. I think it's crass tokenism, but it's also advertising. Look at all the other ads out there. Are they really telling you the truth? Martha Stewart aside, does anyone's food look as good as the food in the commercials? Do you know what they do to make food look that good? (Hint: some of it ain't food, and most of it is shellacked...) Perfumes, jeans, beers, cars, medicines, everything all functions on commercials in ways we can only dream about in the real world. They are not telling the truth in ads. Why should we expect university brochures, which are essentially ads, to do anything different from other advertisers?
Advertisers will tell enough truth to put their product in the best possible light, leave out the rest, and use adjectives to fill out the rest of their allotted space. At least the University of Wisconsin used pictures of current and former students in its rendition of the truth, so it was essentially displaying a clever montage of a students. They could have hired actors, you know... At any rate, the picture itself wasn't done all that well. They didn't resize the head properly or adjust for lighting as well as they could have. If you want to see some really expert digitally altered photographs, wait until the next time somebody wants to bomb another country and displays satellite photographs as "proof" of the foreign threat.