Q&A: Seth Matlins, The Man Proposing Truth in Advertising


banned Christy Turlington L'Oreal ad

While models themselves are trying to undo some of the cultural damage caused by excessive use of Photoshop, regular members of society are likewise spearheading change.  Seth Matlins, who worked previously in advertising, first founded the site Feel More Better to address some of the issues surrounding Photoshop and airbrushing.  He’s since gone quite a step farther, proposing federal legislation that would require transparency for digitally manipulated images.  The Media and Public Health Act (which already has 2,605 out of the 7,395 signatures it needs) isn’t intended to remove Photoshopping, airbrushing, and digital manipulation, but rather to force advertisers to acknowledge, that, hey, the results aren’t real.

After all, when 42% of girls in grades one to three want to be “thinner,” you know something’s wrong.  Here’s more, from Matlins himself:

The High Low:  Between Feel More Better and the Media And Public Health Act legislation for which you’re trying to get support, you’re incredibly active in issues related to truth in advertising.  How did you begin to get involved in this?

Seth Matlins:  I’ve been involved with and around advertising and the creation of popular culture my whole career.  Our involvement in creating the Media and Public Health Act specifically goes back to last August, when we first became aware that a Member of the British Parliament (Jo Swinson) had forced L’Oréal to pull down billboards in London that featured Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington because, to paraphrase MP Swinson, the women’s images had been so digitally altered that they provided a false and unrealistic expectation of what women should and could look like.

Britain banned this ad for being overly retouched and, essentially, a lie.

Having founded Feel More Better in part to give women and girls a place to push back against cultural ideals, we were going to share the story as something we thought our community would be interested in and relate to.  But we began wondering who in our government was looking out for girls and women the way Jo Swinson was in England, and we didn’t see anyone doing anything like it at any government level. And so to fill the void and try and create some movement toward change that’s incredibly necessary, my wife and I created and have proposed the Media and Public Health Act, which would require that Truth-In-Advertising labels be put on any ad that changes the human form (size, shape, proportion, color) digitally.  We’re not saying anyone should stop doing what they’re doing.  We are saying, however, that if advertisers change what Kim Kardashian or any model looks like, we have a right to know and they need to tell us.  The cause and effect relationship between how ads look and how women and girls feel can’t be ignored any longer.

HL: Who, would you say, is Feel More Better’s key readership?  Do you get a lot of feedback about the content?

SM:  While we’ve become increasingly focused on the merchandise side of the business, demographically, the site’s readership is pretty broad.  We’ve gotten stories and comments from women between the ages of 16 to 60.  If you break down our most engaged readers — defining engagement as comments and submissions — it skews from 29 to 40, but our traffic is broader than that, especially at the younger end of the spectrum.  We’ve also recently redesigned the site to be friendlier to more bite-sized content, which we think will help expand our traffic base and help us share more with more readers.

As for feedback, we’ve gotten surprisingly little hate-mail, and we get a fair amount of thank you notes, tweets and emails.  We like that a lot.

HL:  Are there any labels or retailers you think are doing a good job with advertising and imagery?  Who are role models in the industry?

SM:  The first job of advertising — and all marketing — is to sell whatever items they’re selling.  And so on the one hand, “good job” really depends on the commercial result.  If, however, we consider the question from the perspective of positive cultural impact…brands like Toms, Warby Parker, Method, and FEED Project are all doing great work.  Charity:Water, which is a non-profit, is doing some of the best storytelling out there, as did, based on their video views, the folks at Invisible Children, with their KONY 2012 campaign.  Looking at brands with bigger businesses and budgets, Chipotle’s much-lauded animated spot about their organic practices was great.  Eileen Fisher continues to show an array of women in their creative content, as do brands like Bare Escentuals.  All this said, I tend to think that for the most part the state of advertising and marketing has not changed anywhere near as much as the state of the consumer landscape and world.

Bare Escentuals, which held an open casting call for women aged 20 to 60, and selected models based on written questionnaires, is cited positively by Matlins.

HL:  What would be the single most effective change, at this point in time, to steer fashion advertising in a more positive direction?

SM:  I wish I could offer you a silver bullet — the one thing that I think would be a panacea and would cure all our social and cultural ills.  I can’t.  As I said earlier, the job of any advertising is to sell whatever it’s trying to sell, and so to divorce positive commercial effect from any changes seems unlikely to be a change that endures.  This said, it’s beyond time that 7th Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood all step up and accept that the messages and images they put out there have an effect on people.  The entire point of the messages is to have an effect on people.  But they can’t take the credit and yet escape the responsibility for consequences, intended or not.  Obviously, we think passage and/or voluntary compliance with the principles of the Media and Public Health Act and Truth-in-Advertising would be a fine place to start.  I also want to be clear that the responsibility is not fashion’s alone.  We the people, we the advertised to, we parents, friends, and sisters all have a responsibility toward affecting the changes we want to see, as well.

HL:  What do you hope — and reasonably expect — advertising will look in 5 years?  And in 20?

SM:  Bill Gates once said that we tend to over-estimate the amount of change we’ll see in 5 years and under-estimate the amount of change we’ll see in 10.  I think advertising will look a lot like it does now, but of course be more interactive, more narrative, more personalized and individuated.  If this then allows advertisers the commercial confidence to show a more diverse portfolio of representations of beauty, of bodies, of “cool”…that’d be a very good thing.

We think there’s a huge opportunity for marketers to start selling hope and happy more than fear and want.  That’s what we’re trying to do with Feel More Better.  We hope it works.


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