Instagram Effects Are OK, but Photoshopping Is Not? Where Do Your Students Draw the Line on Image Manipulation?

The raging popularity of the photo-sharing smartphone app Instagram offers a great opportunity to discuss the ethics of digital image manipulation.

A recent opinion piece in Ad Age asked why Instagram was not taking flak for the photo-altering filters it offers while Photoshop gets attacked as a tool for distorting the truth. (Note: the article has a touch of coarse language.) The comparison is not entirely apt, given the much more extensive editing capability that Photoshop offers, but it raises an important point.

Instagram filters let users improve or modify the appearance of photos by adjusting hues, adding sepia tone and other retro effects, adding borders, or blurring parts of the image to highlight other parts. (This article from Mashable offers a helpful introduction to Instagram.)

You can’t use Instagram to make a supermodel look like she’s made out of toothpicks, the way ad agencies and fashion magazines sometimes do with Photoshop, but you can improve the look of photo subjects and direct the eye toward certain things and away from others.

For visual business communication in general, how much dressing up is too much? At what point does persuasion change from the “truth well told,” to borrow McCann Erickson’s tagline, to deliberate deception? You can punctuate this discussion with recent cases in which cosmetics ads were deemed misleading because the airbrushed models were a little too perfect to reflect real-world results. For example, the UK advertising industry’s self-regulatory body recently sanctioned ads featuring Rachel Weisz, Julia Roberts, and Christy Turlington.

To expand the discussion about ethical communication, you might talk about how verbal communication can also be “Photoshopped,” in the sense of using more-appealing words in place of less-appealing alternatives. Anyone who has ever read a real estate ad for a “cute and cozy, one-of-a-kind bungalow” and then driven across town to find a claustrophobic shack decorated entirely with antlers and old gas station signs can relate to this phenomenon.

With visual or verbal communication, a helpful way to frame the discussion is to define the endpoints of an ethical continuum—actions that students consider unimpeachably right at one end and those they believe to be unquestionably wrong at the other. Then work inward from these endpoints to explore the gray areas between the black and white absolutes.