Corporate communications and marketing

The real people revolution: using true to life imagery in campaigns

September 2021 6 min read Written by Papirfly

What you will learn...

  • How representation has changed over the years
  • What societal changes have influenced imagery in advertising
  • How to be more conscious of imagery selection in your campaigns

Flawless skin and unattainable body standards have sadly been commonplace in advertising for several decades.

It’s only since the beginning of the millennium that we’ve started to see brands turn the tide on how people are represented in their campaigns. Particularly in the last few years, we’ve begun to see the world shedding its warped, outdated perception of what a person ‘should’ look like, and starting to embrace authentic, real and true-to-life standards for brands and campaigns. 

It’s been quite a journey to make it here, and unfortunately, there’s still a very long way to go. In this article, we’ll explore how authenticity has rightfully shouldered its way onto the scene and provide actionable takeouts for brands to embrace it.

A brief history of imagery use in campaigns

Mid-20th century advertising is notorious for its sexist and unrealistic depictions of women and families, largely due to the social construct at the time heavily pushing gender roles. This advert for Palmolive from 1951 is one of many examples of brands associating beauty with perfection. The model’s hair is flawlessly curled, her skin has almost no texture and her makeup is professionally applied. 

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For well over two-thirds of the century, women were portrayed as exceptionally feminine, always well put together and often with hourglass figures. Men were broad, had perfect teeth and were shown in suits. Diversity was incredibly lacking. Brands were heavily reliant on highlighting perfection as aspirational as they had to convince consumers that their products were needed. 

As society progressed, the unrealistic standards placed on both women and men in advertising failed to cease. We saw Calvin Klein adverts overrun with washboard abs and size 0 models gracing the runway. Even as some brands started to embrace more diversity in terms of ethnicity, representation for disabilities, different body types and realistic beauty standards were still inadequate. 

Fast forward to this advert from 2018, Benetton shows a range of men and women (and a child) with different skin tones and ethnicities. While there’s no suggestion that the image has been edited, the models shown are all tall, thin, young and seemingly without flaw. Benetton has long been praised for its inclusivity when it comes to race, but what some may argue is that it still fails to recognise representation for the everyday person in terms of different body types, height, age and more.

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Societal changes that have influenced brand decisions 

In the last 20 years there has been a greater focus on representation in the media, and as minorities fought for inclusion across advertising and in the workplace, there has also been another societal shift. One that’s changed the world as we know it.

Since Facebook launched its social media platform in 2004, the adoption of editing or filtering images has incrementally grown. When Instagram launched in 2010 it propelled the use of digitally enhanced photos, as its development focused not only on new formats, but new editing capabilities. 

Then came the rise of the influencer, something now considered a viable, full-time career route for many. Millions of people from across the world have reached influencer and micro-influencer status by building up a huge organic following, with followers often drawn to those who have aspirational Instagram feeds, showing travel, beauty, interiors and other parts of their lives.  

As the saturation of edited images and unrealistic representation fills billboards and social media feeds, audiences are struggling to find true connection with brands. They’re not seeing themselves represented and as such don’t think brands represent them. Additionally, a study in 2019 showed that the more authentic and raw the image was, the more participants had a positive perception of the brand. 

As society moves towards a wider attitude of body acceptance, the fatigue of perceived perfection has well and truly started to sink in. Brands have begun to take note as Millennials and Gen Z disengage with being sold false lifestyles and unattainable visuals. With social media now proven to negatively affect the mental health and self-esteem of those using it, brands are now taking responsibility in their actions and advertising. 

The Norwegian government has even gone as far as passing a law that means social media images must legally be labelled if they have been edited in any way. This is a progressive move that we’re sure many other countries will follow in time. 

Brands that are helping to change the narrative 

  • In March 2021 Unilever promised to remove the word "normal" from its beauty and personal care packaging and advertising. The move – which would affect at least 200 products – will no doubt help to reverse the narrative that society has built of what’s considered ‘normal’. They will also set strict guidelines on the editing of models and ensure that nothing excessive or unrealistic will make it to print or digital. The move came off the back of an eye-opening study the brand commissioned, which saw 56% admit the beauty industry made them feel excluded.

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  • Gillette has partnered with the popular Animal Crossing game creators to release a range of skin tones and diverse body features for their avatars. The ‘Venus’ arm of the Gillette brand carries the ‘My skin. My way.’ tagline, which makes this partnership one that’s not only relevant to the brand, but also gives adult and child players of the game across the world a more realistic version of themselves to play as.


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  • Dove's ‘Real beauty’ campaign initially received a mixed response when it launched in 2004. The campaign has significantly progressed through the years, with many initiatives and empowering messages still going strong. Not only did the brand see a 700% uplift as a result of the campaign, they were one of the first big players to truly challenge the damaging messages put out by the beauty industry.

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Steps brands can take to ensure imagery is realistic

With consumers inundated with messages and imagery everyday, they are much more in-tune with what authentic advertising looks like. It’s never been more important to have inclusive, diverse and authentic representation in your imagery and videos.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself when it comes to choosing imagery or commissioning a new photoshoot that will help your brand set more realistic expectations and start positive conversations. 

Realism: Questions to ask yourself

  • Do these images feel staged or unrealistic?

  • Will your customers relate to these images?

  • Are you your target audience? Ask yourself what you would like to see 

  • If you’re not your target audience, ask someone who is what they’d like to see

Diversity: Questions to ask yourself

  • Is your brand inclusive enough? Who should you be representing more?

  • What are your key demographics and are they being shown in the right way?

  • Have you considered a balance of gender and race in your imagery?

  • How likely would your audience relate to the images you’re selecting? Take a look through any user-generated content you may have and remind yourself of the people interacting with your brand.

Emotional connection: Questions to ask yourself 

  • Do the images convey any emotions?

  • Do you personally feel anything when you look at the images?

  • Do you feel like you’re ‘in the moment’ with the subjects?

  • Can you gauge the story of what’s happening from the image alone (if you had no supporting text)? 

Brand relevance: Questions to ask yourself 

  • Do the image styles follow your brand guidelines?

  • Are there any sensitivities for the markets they are being used in?

  • Is there anything topical happening that may make these images inappropriate?

  • What word do you associate with your brand when you look at these images?

Ensuring your brand is real and authentic

When it comes to socially conscious advertising, it’s important to realise that imagery is just the start. The stories you tell, the people you hire, your corporate social responsibility and the channels in which you engage with consumers is equally as important. Imagery is of course a good place to start.

With over a third of people admitting adverts influence the way they see themselves and 33% also agreeing that “adverts set unrealistic expectations and put pressure on people”, there’s not just an expectation on brands to take responsibility for the way people are represented in their campaigns, there’s a fundamental need.

by Papirfly

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