I-Team: Should the MTA Tell You If Ads on Subway, Buses Are Airbrushed?

What to Know

  • Advocacy group Girls Inc. is urging the MTA and other government agencies to disclose when ads in public spaces have been doctored
  • The group says pervasive airbrushed ads can contribute to poor body image and mental health problems for girls
  • The MTA has declined to comment on whether it has any responsibility to disclose when images of women's bodies have been distorted

Advertisers have been digitally altering beauty ads for decades, removing tiny blemishes, changing body contours, even changing the skin tone of models. But now a nonprofit dedicated to bolstering girls' self-esteem is urging government agencies to be more transparent about which images in public spaces have been doctored.

Girls Inc., a national advocacy group that supports wellness and mental health among young women, is asking public transit agencies -- including the MTA in New York City -- to disclose when ads plastered on buses and subways have been airbrushed.

"We're just looking for more information here, for more transparency, for truth in advertising," said Lara Kaufman, the director of public policy at Girls Inc.

Kaufman and other advocates for young women say pervasive airbrushed ads can contribute to poor body image and mental health problems for girls, especially when they see distorted images on public transit every morning to and from school.

"We’re talking about a public health risk here. And we’re not asking that these ads be banned. We’re just saying they should be truthful. They shouldn’t be misleading." 

When asked if the MTA has any responsibility to disclose when images of women’s bodies have been distorted, Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the transit agency, declined to comment.

In other advertising controversies, the MTA has weighed in. Last month, the agency ordered its advertising vendor, OutFront Media, to reverse a decision that rejected an ad campaign for female sexual enhancement products. At the time, Weinstein said the MTA would apply its policies “evenly and fairly” and would "work with the company toward a resolution that is agreeable to all parties and allows their ads on the system."

Letitia James, the New York City public advocate who is now running for state attorney general, said the MTA should consider changing its policy to be more transparent about digitally altered ads. She noted that a recent advertisement appearing on hundreds of MTA buses showed a model arching her back into a “v” shape that looked unnatural.

“The shape of this woman’s back leading to her buttocks would suggest that it is altered,” James said. “This is just another form of redefining beauty, of oppressing women.”

James couldn’t be certain the ad was distorted. Indeed, the MTA does not appear to ask advertisers for disclosure of airbrushing. 

The I-Team asked the jeans company, YMI, if the model’s body contour had been altered. YMI did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In February, the pharmacy chain CVS announced it would put a "beauty mark" on ads with images that that have not been airbrushed. Although the policy does not prohibit digitally altered images on store shelves, it makes clear which products include images that have realistic portrayals of the female body.

Girls Inc. applauded that policy, and says there is no reason the government sector can’t follow CVS’s lead.

Q-Tiye Clarke and Tiara Coleman, a pair of high school seniors about to graduate from Urban Assembly Institute in Brooklyn, say they suspect many of the beauty ads they see on public transit platforms are digitally altered, unrealistic portrayals of the female body.

“The fact that these advertisements are showing images that aren’t true, makes girls wonder like, 'Wow, am I not good enough?'” Coleman said. 

“Images like this make younger kids want to be older faster and want to change themselves more than they should,” Clarke added.

Catherine Baker-Pitts, a psychotherapist who specializes in women’s mental health, said disclosure of digitally altered beauty ads is no different from disclosure of ingredients in the products we put into our bodies. 

“We know that there has been a push in advertising to attach labels to cigarette ads to address the dangers associated with smoking,” Baker-Pitts said. “Why don’t we see those same warnings on this kind of imagery that objectification puts girls and women at risk for increased anxiety, shame, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction.”

The I-Team asked MTA Board Members if they support disclosing when advertisers distort images.

“It’s certainly worth having a conversation and a discussion about, and I think we will,” said Lawrence Schwartz, an MTA board member appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “I’ll make sure this information goes back to Chairman Lhota.”

So far, neither MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, nor Cuomo (who appointed him) have weighed in on the issue.

A spokesperson for Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo’s challenger in the upcoming Democratic primary, said Nixon does support public disclosure when ads have been digitally altered to create unrealistic portrayals of women’s bodies. 

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