Photoshop Doctoring and Malpractice

Photoshop is to a graphic designer as a rolling pin is to a baker. Clay to a sculptor. Or a scalpel to a surgeon. It’s an invaluable tool that provides essential utility. But in the wrong hands, it can produce questionable and dangerous results.

Last week, Ralph Lauren came under fire for a new print ad depicting an impossibly-thin model. Many decried another abuse in the fashion industry’s proliferation of unrealistic body images. (This one is empirically implausible.) While some see nefarious intent, I see a really bad Photoshop job. What was interesting, on another level, was the combative dialogue that ensued via social media. Ralph Lauren filed a DMCA complaint against Boing Boing, who originally posted the ad and critique, for copyright infringement and other injurious activity. Boing Boing fired back by refusing to take the image down and used the opportunity to issue a stern warning to Ralph Lauren and, ostensibly, the entire fashion industry.

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So that’s the fashion industry. What about technology marketing? There have been innumerable displays of bad Photoshop work in tech. Think about how many catalogs you’ve seen with distorted laptop screens, bad strip-ins of cellphone users standing on mountaintops or impossibly bright projectors that can outshine the sun. You can see 10 tech company Photoshop disasters here. Or an ongoing chronicle of shoddy Photoshop work here.

Recently, Microsoft got in hot water for a Photoshop faux pas (is that a Pho pas?) in which it changed the ethnicity of a person in an ad (vis-a-vis their head) for use in Europe. Some Microsoft haters (or Big Company haters, or both) decided to issue claims of Microsoft’s racist intent. But as David Coursey at PC World shares, the real problem is just bad Photoshop work. Was it kind of a bone-headed move on Microsoft’s part? Probably. But hardly a grand conspiracy. It was most likely the independent, ill-advised action of a crappy rookie designer. (Just look at that head!)

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Fiscal reality meets Photoshop fantasy
So here’s my volley in this battle. There are three very pressing realities about technology marketing and use of manipulated imagery:

  1. Photoshop is increasingly capable of manipulating reality
  2. Stock photography is increasingly cheap
  3. Many clients don’t have the time, budget or inclination to shoot new imagery

We’re all going a thousand miles an hour with our hair on fire. Often, there’s simply no time to take two weeks to cast and shoot an image for a mailer. And the affordability of royalty-free imagery proves too irresistible to virtually every Director of Marketing (and, hence, agency.) It was that way three, pre-recession years ago. Now, with marketing budgets slashed left and right, the call to “be resourceful” is being heard louder than ever.

What transpires is the call for Photoshop wizardry. I can’t think of how many times we’ve been asked to take an existing product shot and force it into a $100 stock photo. Many times we can’t even re-shoot the product. We’re forced to choose from one of three existing angles and then spend hours finding the ideal boardroom shot with just the perfect lighting and arrangement of people that fits the product in believably. (My favorite is having to find a stock person that can accurately “hold” a canned product shot. Always fun.)

I’ve had other agency-types and employees bemoan the practice, urging with an air of judgment, “you know, you should really shoot that.” We still diplomatically campaign to shoot the hero shots, but until the economics of the choice change dramatically, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe. We’re here to serve our clients with a firm grasp of budgets and, yes, a keen eye for Photoshop details.

The Ralph Lauren and Microsoft episodes underline not only the importance of doing good Photoshop work, they also underline the need for judicious application of the practice. It’s literally all about perception. In these days when digital sleight of hand can look like playing three-card Monte, you need to be prepared for the possibility of having your work not only scrutinized for style, but also demonized for indiscretion.


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