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ASA upholds use of filters in social media beauty ads as misleading

Published on 09 June 2021

The question

Should influencers be allowed to use filters when advertising cosmetic products?

Key takeaway

Filters should not be used to advertise products on social media if they exaggerate the effect of the product. Influencers and advertisers promoting beauty products should avoid applying filters to photos or videos which are directly relevant to the product being advertised to avoid potentially misleading consumers.

The two recent ASA cases

In 2011, the ASA released guidance on the use of pre and post-production techniques in ads for cosmetics, which established that the re-touching of images requires particular attention to avoid misleading consumers, and visual claims should not misleadingly exaggerate the capabilities of the product. The guidance was published well before in-app beauty filters became available on social media and the historic rulings in this area tended to focus on post-production techniques for cosmetic products in TV ads; nonetheless these are useful in setting a baseline.

More recently, the ASA applied its core principles to two rulings against ads from Skinny Tan Ltd and We Are Luxe Ltd. Both ads consisted of Instagram stories by influencers promoting tanning products. In both cases, the influencers featured had applied beauty filters that made their skin tone appear darker than it would have without the filters. The ASA considered that, because the filters were directly relevant to the performance of the products being advertised, they were likely to have exaggerated the efficacy of the products and materially misled consumers.

Why is this important?

Using filters in ads is not inherently problematic but is likely to cause issues if a filter exaggerates the effectiveness of the product being advertised. It will be the advertiser’s responsibility to demonstrate that is not the case. Even if an advertiser was able to create a filter which accurately reflects the efficacy of their product, the onus would still be on the advertiser to hold evidence to show that any visual claims made are unlikely to mislead.

Any practical tips?

Filters are usually applied at the time of creating the content, rather than to an existing image or video after it has been created. As such, it’s unlikely that there will be “before” material which could be retained by an advertiser to demonstrate the effect of the filter and show that it wasn’t likely to mislead. Advertisers could consider retaining such images or taking comparison ones before the application of any filters, to better ensure compliance or an adequate response to any ASA inquiry.

It’s important to remember that the responsibility ultimately lies with the advertiser where the use of a filter is likely to mislead consumers about the efficacy of a product. Brands may therefore wish to clarify in their commercial agreements with influencers their responsibilities when marketing cosmetic products on social media and advise them against the use of beauty filters if they are likely to exaggerate the efficacy of the advertised product.