ModCloth Offers a Powerful Pledge Toward Public Health

not photoshoppedAug. 27, 2014 “If you repeat a lie often enough it will be believed” is a truth in itself, since scads of internet sources cite Joseph Goebbles as the originator of that quote despite blurry, (if any) authentication.

Truth is…Media messages “stick” and when we as a culture repeatedly blast the same visual information in a saturation loop, our collective consciousness begins to fool our mental relays into perceiving half-truths and utter falsehoods are normative if not ‘real.’

Example? Gatorade’s juxtaposition with athletes and fitness is a fabricated cue, when in reality the unhealthy toxins,  unproven claims,  self-serving science (industry funded, according to the British Medical Journal) and medical outcry citing the lack of evidence that sports drinks work should be our reality check. But it’s not. 

These aggressively marketed sugar-amped neon concoctions trigger imagery of fit, sweaty athletes chugging their joy juice, turning the hawking of hydration into an art form. For countless children and sports wannabes, this ‘aspirational advertising’ not only works, it seers into kids’ psyches…

Now let’s fast forward to Photoshop which we all SAY we KNOW is a “lie” and see how the harm has taken its toll on kids…and on the truth.

truth in ads demoJust like sports drinks and athletes create a false “fitness pairing” by marketing the notion that water is not enough “replenishment” for hydration when we should instead be urging the public to trade sports drinks for WATER, lies and half-truths become embedded in our brains as ‘fact’ when we’re surrounded by them so much that we adopt the narrative.

Nowhere is this case in point more clearly made and more profoundly destructive than the productization of human beings with Photoshop, often altering and narrowing already “picture perfect” subject matter.

By creating lies and fabrications that we “know are not true” yet repeatedly see in media saturation and proliferation, the lie becomes a normative benchmark of perfection for a truth that doesn’t even exist.

From whittling legs into thigh gap distortions, to inflating chests of both genders, and ripped six-pack abs of muscle men with body dysmorphia, we’re essentially messing with altering the mental relay of growing, developing pre-pubescent brains and bodies by creating perceptions, deceptions and problems where there weren’t any before.

That’s a preventable travesty.



WHOResearch on adolescent mental health points to substantive concerns, the World Health Organization even placed adolescent depression and mental health as the predominant global cause of illness and disability among 10-19 year old boys AND girls…ratcheting up to the top tier list of goals and items that need to be addressed.

Brave Girls Alliance partner and “dads vs ads” proponent Seth Matlins has been fiercely battling the escalation of this phenomenon, most recently representing legislation to put forth a bill to callout ‘material changes’ which essentially means the hacking down or ballooning up of male and female body parts, calling out specifics on the slice and dice alteration of the size, shape, color and proportions of bodies ultimately causing direct harm to children, pre-adolescents and teens.

bga mediumWhen HR4341 was initially introduced this past spring, backed by our partner org, the Brave Girls Alliance, I interviewed Seth Matlins on specifics about defining what “material changes” means

I was pleased to see the bill’s guidelines (FAQs and full text of the bill here) were informative and inclusive without being constraining and regulatory. In short, his proposal boils down to a common sense “Hey, knock it off, people, kids are getting hurt here” parenting plea for public health accountability that I can heartily support 200%.

Sadly, much of the mass media reporting  on the legislation has ALSO been a half-baked truth…

Most reporters have reframed the large public health outcomes into a narrowcast lens of bipartisan sponsorship by “eating disorder communities.” At its worst, the reporting has been sardonic, pithy political humor disguised as news.

It’s much easier to deflect the gravity of a systemic public health problem by painting with a sloppy brush, canvasing the digital manipulation landscape in sound bite form as “Photoshop cops” or “retouching rebels” which not only minimizes but misinforms…rather than address the root causes and hold media and marketing’s contribution accountable. After all: 

Why would industry want to constrain when given carte blanche to put profit over public health?

truth in ads-Empty Chairs“Self-rein” is NOT being adhered to, FTC protections on deceptive ads are NOT being enforced, and advertisers don’t seem to give a flying fig as long as they can sell stuff with short-sighted gains over societal loss. (See the glaringly obvious absence of industry representatives at the Congressional hearing above; visual via S. Matlins)

TRUTH is, this is a medical, socio-emotional, and developmental wellness issue impacting kids of every size, race and region…And it’s impacting the adults raising them, too. It’s imperative to shine a spotlight on the dismissiveness to see who’s framing wellness into a “niche” concern and it’s easy to “spot the spin” in the media game of monetization, vested interests and sound bite journalism with sensationalized cover story snipes.

The very real, disturbing escalation of body dysmorphia is often reduced to click bait headlines focused on thigh gaps, manorexia, buffed boys and rail thin body image coverage, which only feeds the gawker-esque “fitspo” and “thinspo” fixations on appearance. One can only hope public pressure will prompt the medical community to tackle this policy conversation head on rather than tap dancing around with “calls for more research”…the harm is already quantifiable.

ama logoEven with progress on awareness, I’m baffled by the silence and side-stepping of large public health organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics who should not only “come aboard” but LEAD the cause to uncork the larger framing of a more ACCURATE conversation from youth body image to mental health, depression, substance abuse and connecting the dots on all aspects of public health costs/societal ramifications of our ambient/appearance-based cues.

In this prior Huffington Post piece, psychologist and author Vivian Miller writes,

“The AMA is just beginning to raise public awareness about the impact of image manipulation on childhood development. They want us all to reflect upon the way in which unrealistic imagery may serve as a contributor to adolescent health problems — and to consider creating ground rules for those who present these images to the public.

As part of a general move toward overseeing potentially harmful media influences, the AMA suggests that ad agencies work with child and adolescent-focused health organizations to create guidelines for future advertising. Clearly, these are complicated psychological and sociological issues, in terms of both the underlying causes for the recent explosion of adolescent eating disorders as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways the media influence these problems.”


Just ducky. So we wait for more “studies?”


That seems foolhardy, at least this bill is on the table for amplification of the conversation, because the current FTC ‘enforcement’ of deceptive advertising is clearly not being touched, much less REtouched.

Today, we’re circling back with Seth Matlins for an update on the bill and to applaud the newly formed “Heroes Pledge” asking advertisers to rise to the challenge of no retouching citing statistics on the direct harm of normalizing these lies into long-lasting public health problems. His tactic to add a layer of positive push for consumers to champion companies who choose to do the right thing appeals…

modcloth screenshotThe first official signee was ModCloth, an indie, diverse, fashion forward, ‘be real, be you’ type of online retailer that caters to personal uniqueness and style that many of us will now be supporting widely. I particularly like the transparency calling attention to “no-Photoshop” companies with like-minded values so consumers can show their support by voting with their wallets to champion change.

In a competitive marketplace amidst our data deluge, WE have the ability to cherry-pick exactly where we want our dollars to go, sorting by ethics, accountability, commonality, and prosocial purpose.

Why not leverage the good, and call upon others to do the same? Love it!

Though ModCloth took the lead  with momentum in social media channels, Twitter continues to light up with enthusiastic proponents showing there’s clearly room for others to ‘get real’ and commit to not retouching models too. There are plenty of passionistas and parents piling on to urge companies to adopt this healthier worldview, with tweets asking “who’s next?” hoping to ignite a bonfire of the vanities so to speak.

dove heroes pledgeAnd though I support the bill and urge industry leaders everywhere to step up and take the “Heroes Pledge” to upend normalizing deceptions, I part ways a tad on logistics, as I’m not sure I’d waste my breath cajoling or confronting companies who haven’t signed on, as that could be construed as focusing on shame or blame.

The tweets and petition urging Dove to sign on are clearly about ‘walking the walk’ since Dove branded themselves heavily on the ‘be yourself’ bandwagon of authenticity, and it does seem like a good fit. Still, it feels like ‘peer pressure’ to petition Dove to make beauty more real,  so though I agree in ideology, I see little benefit in singling them out. 

Though it’s odd and a bit disappointing that a large entity like Dove is missing in the “no material changes” conversation, things change and it could be agencies, personnel and timing. After all, some of their recent campaigns have devolved into spoof-worthy drek, and tepid, product sell…but their PRIOR work was game-changing.

No secret that I’ve had considerable Dove love in the ‘greater good’ category (DESPITE their multi-national Unilever/Axe discordant tethers of sexualization and body bleaching reducing the positivity into a zero sum game).

dove2.jpgI’ll always respect Dove’s prior branding, because they publicly led the way in questioning ‘perception and reality’ with their viral success of EVOLUTION’s surreal time-lapse must see TV depicting faux fabrication of beauty…

It became the head-snapping moment of media literacy that served as the tipping point for consumers questioning “what’s real.”

Their powerful follow-up with the ONSLAUGHT ad deepened the conversation further by suggesting how these faux images were landing on children, pummeling girls self-esteem.

That matters. THEY mattered. Media is a powerful tool to help heal wounds, not just create them. And Dove accomplished a lot by opening important dialogue through those two campaigns…

 modcloth no photoshopSo yes, there’s a ‘where’s Dove?’ AWOL question on the Heroes Pledge and support for HR4341 to be sure…(along with Aerie, and Jacob, and every other brand that has promoted ‘be real’ beauty messages and anti-Photoshop stances) but I’d prefer to focus on a two-tier approach of wildly applauding advertisers like ModCloth and raising the social responsibility decibel level of public health and medical concerns. 

“It is time for the industry at large to portray women in an honest and realistic way. It should be the norm, not the exception.”

ModCloth Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer Susan Gregg Koger 

Amen. And “Bravo!” Now, who’s NEXT on deck? 

Shaping Youth in Conversation With Seth Matlins

An Update on the Truth in Advertising Act HR4341


Shaping Youth: Countless media articles seem to be missing the TRUTH of your ‘Truth in Ads’ bill, distorting what ‘labeling Photoshopped ads’ really means, and misinforming readers about what “material changes” means. Why do YOU think that is?

seth matlinsSeth Matlins: I think there are three reasons:

1. Those who have an ideological bias against any government regulation regardless of merits, and those from the ad industry who (purposefully) distort intent and truth to serve their purposes. The misrepresentations of the truth about the Truth in Advertising Act  are often as egregious as the misrepresentations in the ads we’re talking about.

2. Lazy, sloppy reporting (from the left, right and center)

3. One outlet’s lazy, sloppy reporting becomes the “background” for another’s, and the misrepresentations just get perpetuated and distributed.

While we keep explaining “material change,” it keeps getting left out of the conversation…perhaps too much detail and nuance for non-political coverage. To my recollection, the National Review (see #1 above) was the most egregious in their misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and their focus on eating disorders, anorexia in particular.

Shaping Youth: What would you do differently in framing the bill’s importance knowing what you know now, and what are your next steps to get the conversation of adolescent and public health back on track…Is it the “Heroes Pledge” positioning?

Seth Matlins: I’d probably take a page from the original Legacy ad campaign and go right to the true extreme. Photoshopped Ads Are Killing People. (media seems to ‘pick up’ extremes) and with this, I DO know we need more active participation from the likes of the AMA, APA, CDC etc…established medical entities all of whom have spoken directly to the damage and the health crisis being caused by this type of advertising.

Getting the medical establishment with us – not just adjacent to us – is essential, in my opinion, to the path and pace of progress.

The Heroes Pledge is all about trying to provoke and facilitate the ad industry’s self-regulation…for if there WERE self-regulation, we wouldn’t need the Bill at all! We are trying to position doing the right thing, the ethical thing, the responsible thing as a Heroic act. Carrot v Stick (as I’ve been trying for 3 years)

Shaping Youth: What about rebranding the bill using the precedent of GMO labeling, “knowing what’s IN the products we consume?” Could that clarify a “choice” positioning in terms of picking brands that are NOT Photoshopped, like ‘buying organic?’ Is that a fair comparison? Why or why not?

Seth Matlins: Yes, it’s 100% fair, but it may not be accurate as far as HR 4341 goes, since it’s not prescriptive…

Before its introduction, when we were taking a “labeling” tact, we talked about this as a “right to know” bill; much less so now without knowing what the FTC will recommend as remedies. That said, this analog is both fair and accurate within the context of the Pledge, which is prescriptive. I think it’s something we need to revisit.

Shaping Youth: If you reframed “material changes” with label literacy, akin to consuming a healthier food or beverage, why wouldn’t a brand want to be seen as taking a “Heroes Pledge” if in fact they are NOT altering “material changes” in an ad? Also did you find ModCloth or did they find you? Where is Dove in all this? I thought for sure they’d step up with this messaging…

Seth Matlins: I have NO idea why Dove wouldn’t, hasn’t, and won’t even reply to the petition. As a consumer I think it’s ridiculous, as a marketer I think it’s a potentially huge mistake. ModCloth found us, after seeing the Dove petition.

Shaping Youth: Finally, where does the bill stand now?

Is it a moot point to even try to pass HR4341 since media has inextricably interwoven coverage of misinformation or is it worth the effort to try to untangle the hairball?

“Everyone retouches” has become the ad industry response, to muddle up the issues and deflect the material changes specificity…What will you do differently to try to reframe this? And what’s your strategy to get the votes needed to pass the bill and the corporations aboard the Heroes Pledge to create momentum and move it into a media movement?

Seth Matlins: We need to get additional Congressional support, in particular from Republicans and members of the Committee of Jurisdiction. We need a Senate companion Bill and, to date, two Senators who you think would embrace this in a moment given their previous work on behalf of women and girls…have not.

The media’s misrepresentation of the Bill is, in my opinion, not material (pun intended.) We’ve always recognized that very little of great importance gets through Congress regardless of its coverage. But until the problem is addressed meaningfully and at scale, we’ll continue working all available channels.

The regulatory effort launched with the Bill’s introduction in April; the self-regulatory launched with the introduction of the Truth in Advertising Heroes Pledge, and it’s likely legal action will begin in October.

Shaping Youth: Thanks, Seth…As you know, I’m a huge proponent of the larger positioning as a public health problem, and agree with you that the medical side of this is pivotal to gain traction at a policy level. Meanwhile, let’s hope ModCloth’s adoption of the Heroes Pledge opens the flood gates to all the other companies out there ready to tap into their own social responsibility to do the right thing! 

Appreciate your time and tenacity advocating for a seismic shift in the appearance-based culture that’s impacting our children.

How Can I Help?


From the Brave Girls Alliance Toolkit:


  1. Sign the petition supporting TIAA here:
  2. Become an Ally of TIAA to get updates on the bill and how to help. 
  3. Share both the links above and these FAQs with family, friends and professional networks. 
  4. Tweet your support using the #TruthInAds hashtag.
  5. Use the hashtag on your Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine etc., feeds.
  6. Email, tweet, write or call your Congressional Representative and/or Senator.
  7. Write an opinion piece or blog about it. Tell your friends and family. Ask them to sign the petition and spread the word. 
  8. Let everyone know you think the time for Truth In Advertising is now.


Research At a Glance:


The Effects of Body Misinformation in Ads



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