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CVS Marches onto the Body-Image Battlefield

CVS Marches

A new brand has stepped onto the body-image battlefield—and it isn’t a beauty brand, but one that could shake up practices in that industry.

Health as a Brand Commitment

U.S. pharmaceutical company CVS Caremark announced in 2014 that they would stop selling cigarettes in all stores and walk-in clinics by year-end. Shortly thereafter, the chain rebranded as CVS Health. Cigarettes and heath care did not align, so cigarettes (and related profits) had to go. While many saluted this altruistic move, some cynics pointed out that sales of smoking cessation products and services would help fill the cigarette sales gap.

But CVS seems committed to being a brand supporting healthy choices. In 2016, the chain began shifting food and beverage inventory to include more fresh foods and healthier (organic, natural, chemical-free) CPG options in an effort dubbed FitChoice. Later this summer, the brand plans to restock check-out counter space with healthier snack and “grab’n’go” items. CVS has also become Target’s pharmacy partner; Target is likewise pursuing a wellness strategy, making the corporate duo a smart partnership.

The chain’s next move surprised many brand observers. In April 2018, CVS announced they will stop “materially altering” beauty product imagery starting in April 2018. Further, CVS is asking beauty brands stocked by CVS to do the same… or clearly label images as having been retouched or “modified.”

Impossible Perfection

You’ve likely seen examples of the image-retouching scandals over the past several years. Often it is a severely altered image on a magazine cover that makes a normal-looking woman look spectacularly otherworldly. There was the Julia Roberts ad for the Lancôme beauty brand that the British Advertising Standards Authority banned because it had been so heavily airbrushed, the “glow” the actress displayed was more due to retouching than the effect of the actual product. In the U.S., a Redbook cover featuring Faith Hill was reviled by many after Jezebel.com revealed the before-and-after photos for comparison.

Even Kate Middleton, newly wed to Britain’s Prince William, suffered reconstructive surgery on magazine covers to give her an impossibly (at least without using a 19th-century corset) slender waist. Speaking of corsets, the fashion industry is likewise under fire for its use of anorexic models, whose body types (on average, 5’10” and 110 lbs.) are already not anything like “normal” body proportions.

Dove brand just announced it will begin using a #NoDigitalDistortion icon to denote ad images that have not been digitally retouched. Dove took a stand on body image with their Real Beauty campaign over the past several years, and was joined by P&G’s #LikeAGirl campaign. Celebrities have tried to help, posting selfies sans makeup so fans can see the “unvarnished truth” of their real-life appearances.

Body Image Is a Health Crisis

“So what?” some may ask. “It’s all about presenting the most attractive image for the brand.” But that image-enhancing has caused most young girls to feel they can never be thin enough, pretty enough… perfect enough for the impossible standards set in magazines and advertising. Women are bombarded daily with such images. Some research studies have found girls as young as 5-7 years already expressing a preference to be “as thin as Barbie” rather than like a doll with realistic, healthy body proportions.

Health specialists have repeatedly shared the damage from consistent exposure to unrealistic body images, ranging from eating disorders, poor self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, to depression and even suicidal tendencies. The stress is particularly hard on teenagers, already vulnerable due to puberty-related body changes, and negative pressure has worsened since the rise of social media bullying. While boys are not immune, the beauty and fashion industries’ focus on women greatly increases the impact on girls. The problem is now so widely recognized, the American Medical Association lists it as a health issue.

CVS Beauty Unaltered Campaign

CVS just launched Beauty In Real Life, its first cosmetics campaign featuring a “more realistic image of beauty,” using candid photography styled and shot by women, for women. Un-retouched images are identified with a Beauty Unaltered watermark, with the aim of setting new standards for authenticity. The watermark attests that images have not been “materially altered,” i.e., the brand did not "digitally alter or change a person’s shape, size, proportion, skin or eye color or enhance or alter lines, wrinkles or other individual characteristics.”

The campaign to let women just be their beautiful selves is a reminder that the beauty norms we now take for granted are fairly recent acquisitions. It wasn’t until the 1920s movie industry began to promote its more glamorous stars (wearing Max Factor stage and screen makeup) that a market for cosmetics developed as fans expressed a desire to emulate their favorite actresses. Before that, women who wore makeup tended to be ladies of the night, or actors (the dividing line was pretty thin in the eyes of moralists). Cosmetics moguls Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and Madame C. J. Walker saw the opportunity and soon, American women were spending money for lipsticks, foundations and eye makeup regularly. For many teens, it is a rite of passage to buy your first makeup.

If the CVS pharmacy chain (7,900 U.S. stores whose 5 million daily customers are 80% women) can bring pressure to bear on an industry infamous for bending reality to sell products, maybe body image reframing will really gain momentum. But are American women ready for the new reality of wrinkles, age spots, under-eye circles, moles, freckles, split ends and crow’s feet? We have been so conditioned to imagery showing unblemished perfection, this could take some getting used to.

Maybe then, we can address the heavy focus on women having to look like 20-year-olds even in their 60s. I’ll be watching for the #AgeGracefully hashtag. In the meantime, CVS is working hard to align brand values with everyday practices.

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