CVS Isn't Cool With Airbrushing Anymore

Jan 18, 2018
Management

Unretouched Photos Good for the Triple Bottom Line

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – When CVS announced it would ban heavily retouched photographs in its marketing campaigns, suggesting those images set unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards for the millions of women who shop in its stores, it wasn’t just a good deed.

It was also good business, says Christine Beckman, professor of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and academic director for its Center for Social Value Creation. “And those things are not, in this case, inconsistent with one another in any way.”

Under the drugstore giant’s new policy, unretouched photos of models in CVS stores or online will be watermarked with a “CVS Beauty Mark” label, indicating that the photos were not altered to change the model’s shape, size, wrinkles, skin tone, eye color or other features. By 2020, the company says, it will watermark any retouched images with a “digitally modified” label.

The move speaks to the kind of corporate social value creation that’s taught at the Smith School. “When we talk about social value,” Beckman says, “we talk about the triple bottom line – social, environmental and economic interests. It’s the expectation that businesses are focused on more than just economic profits; they are also thinking about their social impact and their environmental impact.”

It’s possible, Beckman explains, for companies to consider all three tenets of the bottom line and in many cases make business decisions that benefit all three. “We don’t necessarily have to think about them as one versus the others,” she says. “And I think this decision is consistent with that.”

Beauty is an important and competitive category for CVS, with cosmetics and related products accounting for more than $3.4 billion in revenue, or roughly 4.2 percent of its retail sales in 2016.

And as the nation’s largest drugstore chain, with nearly 10,000 locations, CVS is important to cosmetics makers. “CVS has an incredible amount of market power,” Beckman says. She anticipates that brands like L'Oreal, Maybelline and CoverGirl will be pressured to stop airbrushing promotional images, to avoid the less-favorable CVS watermark.

The drugstore chain’s move to restrict digitally altered images comes amid a rising awareness of the pressures women and girls feel to achieve unrealistic standards of beauty. And it comes at a time when awareness of objectification and sexual harassment of women is increasing, in part because of ongoing revelations that stem from the #MeToo movement. 

The shift toward more realistic portrayals of beauty likely fits into that larger trend, Beckman says, because it aims to reduce the expectation that women must try to attain the kind of desirability and perfection in appearance that simply isn’t possible, even for the models represented in the ads.

“This move is giving CVS lots of publicity, and I’m sure CVS is hoping that it will inspire more women to say, ‘I’m going to go to CVS and I’m going to buy more of the beauty products in their stores.’ I don’t think CVS is doing this altruistically. And that’s OK,” she says.

CVS in recent years has sought to align itself more with the notion of healthy living. The drugstore banned the sale of tobacco products in 2014, and last year announced a plan to merge with healthcare giant Aetna. “And now we are going to have advertisements that reflect how real models actually look,” says Beckman, likely with ads featuring attractive women with healthy, hydrated skin. “And this is all consistent with that overall repositioning as a company focused on health.”

Other brands have made similar moves that boosted their “triple bottom line.”

Unilever’s Dove has long been often credited for promoting more authentic portrayals of beauty, though its marketing efforts have included some notable missteps. For more than a decade, Dove has built ad campaigns around the notion of everyday attractiveness, encouraging women to see the beauty of their own unique bodies.

Similar campaigns have taken off elsewhere in recent years. American Eagle Outfitters’ millennial-targeted lingerie line, Aerie, began hiring non-tiny models for its unretouched photo campaigns in 2014, and sales boomed, growing 20 percent and attracting a devoted fan base “They received a lot of good press for that and sales shot up,” Beckman says.

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About the Expert(s)

Professor Beckman currently serves as Director of the Center of Social Value Creation (CSVC) and as the Smith Diversity Officer. She is an Associate Editor at Administrative Science Quarterly and is a Past Division Chair of the Organization and Management Theory division of the Academy of Management. She was the ADVANCE Professor for 2015-16. She currently teaches doctoral courses in organization and behavioral theory, Implementing Strategy for MBA students, and Social Entrepreneurship for undergraduates.

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