There's a long-held argument that advertising standards are one of the most damaging influences on us as a society. The ideal of perfection we're so often presented with is so commonplace that although we know it's unrealistic, we accept it as the status quo. Until now, that is.
Female shaving brand Billie was one of the first to remind us with their campaign, Project Body Hair, that women don't have dolphin-smooth limbs before they shave them, and it was only recently that Bodyform opted to break new ground by showing red period blood – rather than blue liquid – in adverts for sanitary towels. Sadly, the same brilliant progress can't be applied to skincare advertisements, which, disappointingly, continue to feature women with picture-perfect skin despairing over their spots (which mostly don't exist at all or have been Photoshopped in place with unrealistic red graphics) before splashing water on their face and declaring themselves miraculously blemish-free.
Despite this, recent research has found that consumers respond more positively to realistic advertising. A 2017 survey for business media magazine Campaign found that 47% of respondents prefer adverts featuring ordinary people, and over a third said that brands' attempts to portray their own customers were often unrealistic. This is the exact reason why Refinery29 decided to create unique stock imagery featuring everyday women revealing their scars and blemishes, to go alongside skincare content.
Student Louisa Northcote has long been fighting the cause for skin to be presented realistically within the media and popular culture, and due to her job, she has seen both sides of the process. As someone with acne herself, she began the #freethepimple movement on Instagram to encourage skin inclusivity. "In this day and age we have seen firsthand the huge impact adverts can have on people's self-esteem. It's not about a complete change, it's about being more inclusive of people with different skin types," she tells me.
Like Louisa, I have experience of the impact a skin condition can have on your self-confidence. My decision to stop taking the contraceptive pill in 2015 sparked a hormonal imbalance that brought on an angry, painful bout of acne which I couldn't get under control for years – but the real problem was that I felt ugly and judged constantly. Always happy to go makeup-free before, I was frustrated at myself for feeling like I couldn't be confident in my own skin. So many of these common but crippling insecurities come from the culture we have adopted around skin conditions – how hard is it to normalise spots?
While researching this piece, I struggled to find a skincare brand that had featured a person with anything other than a flawless complexion in their marketing material – even those that were directly targeting specific skin concerns. Earlier this year, I was happy to see actress Chloë Moretz announce that she would star in an un-retouched, makeup-free advert for Japanese skincare brand SK-II, giving press interviews about her own struggles with cystic acne and breakouts. But while there was a lot of talk about embracing imperfections and skin positivity, the finished campaign was as blemish-free as any other I've seen. Unsurprisingly, it was poorly received, with a handful of people questioning its 'un-retouched' credentials.
Brands have come under fire again and again for the way they handle the subject of acne with their often-impressionable customers. In April, Clearasil's 'pimples make terrible prom dates' commercial was criticised heavily and accused of homophobia for reimagining a spot as an effeminate man in a pink suit – his sass subsequently eliminated by a pump of face wash. God forbid they show an actual pimple, rather than stereotyping an entire community of human beings. This cartoonish, farcical tendency to portray acne in any way other than its true form is another worrying trend.
Clearly, it's an area of the beauty market that companies struggle to deal with in a positive, healthy way. So I spoke to Graham Ellis, cofounder of advertising company Habit Creative – which creates campaigns for the likes of Rimmel, L'Oréal and Estée Lauder – about why certain decisions are made. He refers to the typical, tried-and-tested beauty campaigns on television and in magazines as 'vanilla content' – designed to appeal to the masses. "It's one shot," he said. "To put it plainly, it needs to be as appealing as it can be to as many people as it can be, in one piece of content." And it seems social media, at the lower end of the budget scale, is where we'll most likely see changes first. "[On social media] you can test things more and can step outside your comfort zone as a brand," Ellis continued. "This is a good thing, because [brands] will hopefully start experimenting." The likes of Billie and Bodyform are paving the way for more realistic advertising methods, and Ellis is hopeful that beauty campaigns will veer this way, too. "The market doesn't lie," he told me. "While brands may have the perfect image in mind that they want to portray, it's the market that corrects that, eventually. Again, social media really helps – it bypasses a lot and allows people to directly communicate their opinions and be heard. Brands are able to listen and act on this."
Let's hope that's the case, because until we start seeing spots and scars as a version of normality – or better still, beauty – acne sufferers will only be further alienated by the very products that are supposed to help and empower them. I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed.