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Dear the ASA, the damage being caused by filters isn’t just happening in ads

04 February 2021

Seven months after its inception, the #FilterDrop campaign reached a huge milestone on February 3rd – it tightened regulation of filter use on social media. Its creator, Sasha Louise Pallari, cried on Instagram. The model and makeup artist originally launched the campaign as a hashtag encouraging fellow influencers to ditch face-altering filters in the hopes of seeing more “real skin” on social media. Now, for the first time, it’s compulsory to announce when these filters are being used – but only when influencers are advertising skincare or makeup.

Honest advertising seems like an obvious requirement. Yet in the Advertising Standards Agency’s (ASA) announcement of its decision, it named two recent cases of unacceptable, undeclared editing: Elly Norris using the filter “Perfect Tan” in an ad for Skinny Tan, and Cinzia Baylis-Zullo demonstrating the effects of Tanologist face and body drops while filtered with a darker, smoother complexion and faux freckles. Cinzia argued that the ad was intended to show how to use the product rather than the results, making her use of a filter irrelevant, but the ASA was firm. Both ads created misleading impressions of the performance of self-tanning products, and their followers were left none the wiser.

This has been an ongoing problem on Instagram ever since filters evolved past the point of giving you dog ears and instead developed the ability to give you an instant nose job. They’re increasingly realistic and just so easy. The real issue isn’t the fact they change your appearance, but that despite which filter you use, they’re all basically the same. Some might have a vintage film effect or give you devil horns, but they’ll do this while blowing up your eyes and lips, chiselling your cheekbones, slimming your nose, and smoothing your skin. It’s the homogenous “Instagram face” that’s referenced in every article about the rise of fillers and cosmetic surgery, because if everyone uses it (and everyone does) the precedent it sets is that this is what pretty looks like. The moment these unrealistic expectations are attached to actual products, it becomes even more problematic.

But when filters are so deeply ingrained in the DNA of social media – especially fashion and beauty content – the real question is how you even begin to enforce this kind of regulation. There are plenty of filters subtle enough to be used without immediately calling attention to themselves. There are also ways around using them without Instagram’s tell-tale filter stamp in the corner. Filters aren’t uncommon on influencers’ main feed, but the majority use them on Stories where it’s easy to escape being noticed in a 24-hour time frame. Then there’s the fact that not every influencer adheres to ASA guidelines as it is. In the past year alone, Zoë Sugg, Molly Mae Hague and Emily Canham have all tripped up on the existing requirement to declare sponsored content. And these are just the big names. Without assistance from the platforms themselves, weeding out all the violations on a smaller scale is near-impossible.

The truth is, most of the damage caused by filters isn’t happening in ads. Almost every platform boasts beauty filters – TikTok’s beauty mode is used in most videos, Zoom has a setting to smooth out your skin, and even Apple’s FaceTime makes your eyes look bigger. You’d be hard-pressed to click through Instagram Stories without seeing friends, influencers or celebrities on camera filter-free, because why wouldn’t you choose to look better if it’s easy and everyone else does too.

The ASA’s decision sends the right message and, where enforced, will inevitably play a positive role in depicting realistic beauty standards on social media. To really clean up filter culture is harder – filters are everywhere, and it’ll be a long, hard battle to get everybody to drop them any time soon.

By Chloe James, fashion and beauty editor of CORQ.