Will CVS Social Responsibility Campaign Change Anything?

CVS Pharmacy's Commitment to Transparency

CVS Pharmacy, the retail division of CVS Health, vows to stop retouching beauty images in a quest for more honesty in advertising. The new Beauty Mark campaign puts CVS in the news and forges a shiny Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) halo over the brand. It also gives a so needed boost to the CVS Health stock ticker (NYSE: CVS), which is trailing almost 50 percent behind S&P 500  (.INX) year-over-year. The recent bold announcement rides a wave of transparency in marketing and on social media among brands. Getty Images announced that it would no longer carry creative featuring models whose bodies had been retouched. Mattel introduced a line of Barbie dolls with new body types to help change beauty ideals of girls at a young age. American Eagle used photos of plus-sized women in their marketing trying to promote authentic body images. 

CVS Watermark a Watershed Moment?

CVS Pharmacy created and will use a “CVS Beauty Mark” watermark to notify customers that the person featured in a marketing or social media image did not have their shape, size, skin or eye color, wrinkles or other characteristics enhanced or changed. The problem with this promise is that it is misdirected and unsustainable. Most likely we won’t even remember the CVS Beauty Mark by 2020, when the company is supposed to be completely cleansed of those pesky retouched images.

We live in truly exciting times. Marketing and advertising strategies evolve faster than ever. Transparency is not just a trendy newspeak. All marketers have to quickly adapt to the new reality of social media scrutiny. Some marketing principles however remain intact. One of them is that the images in advertising are indivisible part of the message and they should be in concert with the main concept. Promoting beauty products by flaunting imperfections is a tough sell because it contradicts the message. In the moment of truth, people who now applaud CVS for their bold initiative will actually reach for the products showing flawless beauty on its packaging. We want to see the purpose of the products we buy. We are painfully aware of the “before” picture in the mirror and we want to buy a product that will help us fix it.

It is relatively easy for CVS to stop retouching their model photography. The retailer is not too busy scheduling beauty photo shoots anyway. It would be way more surprising to see companies like Revlon or L’Oreal to follow suit. It would be fun watching this type of experiment in real life competitive setting. It simply won’t happen though.

Marketing Misperceptions vs. Reality

There is a widespread misperception about the retouched photography in advertising being fake and misleading. The reality is that marketing is not a documentary genre. It is not meant to report on the real physical appearance of the photo models they employ. The goal of every piece of advertising is to send a clear message – an idea. It is no surprise the images in advertising tend to look ideal.

Photo models are the actors and actresses that impersonate fictional characters created by ad agency copywriters and art directors. Retouchers are our friends. They only improve the clarity of the marketing messages. People need to understand that the final retouched image is the original, because it is the one that represents the original concept and the creative direction of the campaign. The original look of the photo models is their very personal business.

Would you ask Hollywood film directors to ban make up and stop using computer generated images (CGI) to show the real people behind the Avengers (for instance)? Actually, this sounds like a good idea, but it would only work once. In the world of creativity, “me too” is an insult. This is another reason why most companies would be hesitant to follow a movement led by CVS. They would prefer to create their own CSR campaign, so they too (!) can be number one.

Hidden Traps in Cause Marketing

It is hard to say if CVS Health is being too crafty, too naive, or too “me too” in their CSR campaign. Neither sounds too glorious. The company should enjoy and try to capitalize on the surge of attention, because it may not last too long. They should better ask Unilever about the lessons from the crash of Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty”. Cause marketing is a tricky thing – especially if it leads charge against fictitious enemies.

Meanwhile, our clients at Simply180 can rest assured that their photography will continue to be properly retouched, unless the contrary is an integral part of their marketing message.

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