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Retouching vs Reality: How an ex-ad man is trying to change the industry

by Headspace

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Seth Matlins is a father of two and creator of the Truth in Advertising Act (TIAA) which will be reintroduced to Congress this summer. We sat down with him to talk parenting, advertising and how to build and protect our kids’ confidence.

Tell us about the Truth in Advertising Act

Ads that photoshop the people in them into something they’re not and could never be without digital editing tools are a big part of a massive public health crisis. This editing includes things like changing a person’s shape, size or color, enhancing attributes like breasts, and removing characteristics like wrinkles. It adversely affects the emotional, mental and physical health of our children and the adults they grow up to be.

The Truth In Advertising Act asks the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to create a legislative framework for this type of advertising because of the damage these false images, and the expectations they create, has on our children. First introduced last year, the bill is being reintroduced in two to three weeks to this Congress, with bipartisan support. We’re making a few modifications to the language of the bill and reintroduction. We have a great roster of sponsors, and we’re going to keep pushing to protect our children from advertising we consider false and unfair.

The real shame in my opinion is that we need a bill at all to get the advertising industry to do what’s ethical and responsible. And, in fact, is in the best interests of the people they’re selling to. The industry’s response, and absence of response, to what we’re trying to do has just been…it’s shameful. At a certain point, once you know the data, if you continue to perpetuate the same acts that contributed to that data, you’re complicit in the ill-effects. Probably the most powerful lobby group in the advertising industry is the AAF, American Advertising Federation. The chairman knows who I am, knows what we’re doing, knows why I’ve been calling him for six months, and thinks that if he doesn’t reply, somehow that excuses him. And as somebody who comes from the ad industry, I understand it, but I don’t get it, and I don’t understand how these leaders can continue to ignore incontrovertible evidence about the harm being done.

Why do you think the advertising industry is so unwilling to shift?

Let’s remember that businesses are run by humans. There’s the human propensity to preserve the status quo. So what we know about advertising and beauty, what we know about so-called beauty ideals, is that they are persuasive. Certain presentations are more effective in manipulating, persuading and selling than others. Advertisers have decades of science behind this and there’s a belief that symmetrical boobs and no cellulite sells better than asymmetrical boobs and cellulite. (Just to pick on two body parts.) It works on us as consumers, and so they are reluctant to change, regardless of the consequences.

We’re not saying “don’t photoshop,” though that would be great. What we are saying is: don’t let anyone think your photoshopped ad is real. Label it so that kids in particular, but people generally, don’t confuse fantasy with reality. Because it’s in that confusion that kids feel worse about themselves, and that they lose a sense of what is true and real, acceptable and attainable. And that leads to stress, anxiety, depression, all of which contribute to things like substance abuse and, amongst a younger generation, age-inappropriate sexual activity, bullying, suicide. And then it’s an array of mental, physical and health consequences, the far end of which are eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.

We created a Truth In Advertising Heroes pledge, which is one opportunity for the ad industry to be a hero. We’re not trying to cast blame, we’re not trying to villainize anyone, we’re saying, hey, step up and do the right thing. And one of the things is, stop running photoshopped ads where kids under the age of 13 can see them. Don’t run them on outdoor billboards. Don’t run them in stores. Don’t run them outside the pages of a magazine. Because regardless of whether or not they’re the intended target, our kids do see them and they are affected by them without having the cognitive abilities to process these ads as the lies they are.

So the industry is comfortable with the status quo.

I don’t think anybody is evil in the ad industry, but millions have been and are and will be hurt if the status quo isn’t modified. It’s easy to say, “what harm can this one ad do?” But the cumulative effect of all of these ads is proven to be doing harm. And yet the industry does nothing – even despite pleas to change from the likes of the American Medical Association and thousands upon thousands of doctors, educators, advocates, activists, and organizations.

What about editorial?

Editorial is totally protected by the First Amendment. Commercial speech has many protections in the First Amendment, but unfair and deceptive commercial speech is not protected and is already regulated. The FTC, however, needs to step out of the 1980s and evolve their interpretation and application of existing guidelines to advertising in a digital world. To be clear, there are no silver bullets…if the bill becomes law, the cover of Vogue may not change, but the ads inside will.

I stopped being a perfectionist when I grew tired of failure, because perfect does not exist.

So the less that’s out there, the better.

That’s right, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not going to eradicate the problem. We’re going to significantly diminish it, though.

Do you think that’s enough if a 7-year-old is flipping through a magazine?

If a seven-year-old girl is leafing through Cosmo, that’s on her parents, and parents have a huge role and responsibility here.

What do you think about the effects of social media on girls’ confidence?

Look, it’s not social media that creates good or bad. It’s people on social media that create good and bad. So I think sometimes we blame the messenger. Social media platforms are platforms; it’s what we do with them that makes them good or bad or somewhere in between.

I was sitting with some people last night and we were talking about what bullying was like when we were kids and what it’s like now. What social media platforms have created is the opportunity for something like bullying to be 24/7. When I was a kid, if I was bullied, I’d go home from school and at least from 3:30 in the afternoon until 8:00 next morning, I was safe. You’re not safe anymore. It’s pervasive, it’s ubiquitous…but it’s not the platform that creates the evil, it’s people.

What are your thoughts on “perfection”?

It’s complicated. A few years ago I wrote a piece titled “ Explaining Perfect,” born of a moment when my kids were in the playroom and I heard a scream that made me think that somebody had surely lost a limb. I ran to the back and EllaRose is sitting there crying, and I’m like, “baby girl, what happened?” She screams, “Otis said I’m not perfect!” And I’m thinking, ok, this is better than losing a limb, but how do you explain perfect to your child? And in that moment, I fumbled my way to an answer. I still don’t know what exactly to say, because on the one hand you want to give them something to strive for, but you don’t want to create a standard they can never meet. I stopped being a perfectionist when I grew tired of failure, because perfect does not exist. We’re all flawed. Why are we considered “flawed”? Why isn’t that just our human state, and perfect in that way?

I think meditation provides an interesting analogy which is: we think we’re failing at meditation if our mind wanders during the practice . That is the practice, that is the meditation. We’re not flawed – it’s not a flawed meditation because our mind wandered, because we went off on some brain tangent. That is the practice. One of the things I try and help my community understand, and that I try to practice myself, is that happiness is a practice. We do not practice it very well or very often. We grow up learning how to practice our math and our trombone and our tennis and our swimming and cooking, but we don’t teach our children or ourselves to practice happiness. We should start.

What about people who tell you not to tell little girls that they’re pretty? To focus on smarts or talents instead?

Here’s the thing: I understand that, I agree with it, and I also think that it’s not entirely true, right? In isolation it’s more right than in the context of everything you say. I tell my children they’re beautiful all the time, because they are to me. And sometimes I cannot help myself, sometimes I am overwhelmed by it. But what I also say is: not that it matters. I say, “oh my god you’re so beautiful. Not that it matters!” The fact of the matter is that we like to be told we’re beautiful. EllaRose happens not to like it particularly. Otis loves it.

So if I can actually reframe your question, one of the things I tell my friends who are becoming parents is that you’re going get a lot of advice. The only advice I’ll give you is to listen to none of it except that which resonates, right? Because there are as many rules of thumb as there are thumbs.

How can dads get involved in the confidence initiative?

When EllaRose was young, not that she’s old now, we’d watch basketball games together. She loved watching the games because she loves watching sports because amongst the things in her beautiful brain is a very mathematical orientation. And she loved watching the score change. So when the ads would come on – it’s the only live television she saw – I’d cover her ears and eyes so that she couldn’t see or hear them. I was telling a friend about what a challenge this was – the friend is a media critic – and she told me I was missing an opportunity to teach media literacy, even if my daughter was only four.

Since then, I always ask the same questions: what are they selling you, and how are they selling it to you? Which helps our kids begin to look at the world around them and understand the intent behind things. We need emotional literacy, we need media literacy, because we are being manipulated so often, and that is the nature of our capitalist society, right? That’s what marketing does, and you just have to understand the intent behind things more deeply because not everybody cares about how you feel. They care about what you buy. You have to be the protector of your feelings and your happiness, and dads can play a hugely important role in teaching their kids how to protect and nurture their happiness. Just like moms.

So look around and listen and watch and teach your kids critical thinking. It is never too early to start teaching them they have the permission to think, be, feel and do who they are, as they are. To teach them the broader lessons of life. We’ve been trying to do that literally since the moment they were born…sometimes with more success then others.

For more information on Seth and his mission you can follow him @sethmatlins on Twitter


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