Does photoshopping politicians mislead the electorate?

Oct 11, 2012

image0This is clearly a Question To Which The Answer Is No, but bear with me a minute. While researching for my Masters dissertation I spent some time looking at how various countries deal with accuracy requirements in political advertising - I might convert some of my conclusions into blog form at some point but in the meantime I'll share a complaint I found quite funny. In New Zealand rules about accuracy in broadcast and print apply to political advertising (although this is a rare event) and looking through the 2008 cases I found a wonderful complaint to their Advertising Standards Agency by a man who claimed that then PM Helen Clark was misleading the electorate by using a photoshopped image of herself on posters:

The consumer in this instance is the voting public.  Clearly what is represented as the image of Helen Clark is intended to appeal to a younger less knowledgeable voter.  The Labour Party have used this exaggerated image of a youthful vibrant younger woman as the face of the Party to mislead the voting decisions of a less knowledgeable group.


The visual image in the Billboard is clearly intended to mislead, and the standard has been set by your sister organisation – the BSA in its ruling against TV3[*].  They had nothing to gain from using an actor to voice over an interview, the Labour Party have everything to gain from misleading the voting public – even if only by a few votes.

The ASA rejected this, arguing that "it was common practice in a wide-range of sectors for people to take additional care with their appearance when their image was used for publicity purposes" - what makes this extra wonderful is that the complainant appealed this decision, arguing that using photoshopped images was so deceitful it brought the integrity of the whole party into question:

The Labour Party has framed Election 08 around the issue of Trust. This is probably the most important election we as a nation has faced for many years. As such every vote cast is important and the voting public need to be protected from the misleading visual image projected in the billboards (and other media).

A commercial trader potently can make financial gain by presenting goods or services with professionally enhanced images. By way of example if a used car dealer advertised an image of a vehicle that looked pristine, then when it was inspected it was found to have rust, mismatched paint, and no mag wheels, then the dealer is in breach of the guidelines and consumer laws. Your august body acting on the initiative of a complaint from the public would review the standards and apply a ruling to remove the offending advertisement.

In summary, as a concerned citizen I feel compelled to act and voice my opinion that the political party trying to project "Trust" as the major focus of this election is able to knowing promote itself with a visual presentation that is clearly and intentionally designed to mislead a segment of the voting public and gain the favour of those less knowledgeable. As such the billboards in question breach the standard set out in Rule 2.

This is not just another advertisement by a dodgy car dealer or a dramatization from an enthusiastic broadcaster - it is vital that this appeal is considered carefully as it has serious and far reaching implications for the future of New Zealand.”

Which didn't find much favour with the appeal board:

The Acting Chairperson said that the identity of the Advertiser in this Advertisement was clear, both through the authorisation statement, the use of the identifiable party colours and name, and through the image of the leader of the party. Regarding the question of fact and opinion, the Acting Chairperson agreed that this element of Rule 11 was not raised by this Advertisement. Accordingly she ruled the Advertisement met the requirements of Rule 11 was not in breach of it.

The Acting Chairperson took into account the Complainant’s concerns, however, she was of the view, that as the Prime Minister and leader of Labour Party, the public profile of the Rt Hon Helen Clark, across a wide range of media, was such that the general public would be familiar with her appearance.

I think there's a fair case to be made that this complaint has a degree of sexism and well as ageism to it, I find it hard (not impossible) to imagine the same 'people wouldn't vote her if they knew she was ooolldd' being levelled against a male politician? Comparing a politician's image to a rusty car seems an especially thin point - when you buy a car, you buy the car, when you vote a politicians you're not 'buying' their body. Years later, someone made a similar complaint to the UN ethics office about a picture of her on a UN website and there's a definite ugliness about this kind of complaint. We laugh about the Cameron poster, but don't say it calls into question his fundamental character.

On the other hand, isn't it quite nice that even this frivolous complaint was taken seriously and given (and as the complainant says, prompt) consideration?

* This relates to a decision by the NZ BSA that a broadcast that declared an interview used an actor's voice, but didn't declare the silhouetted figure was itself an actor was in breach of accuracy rules.

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