Monday, 12:00am
15 November 2004

If looks could save

Two new major campaigns show that women are still defined by their looks in ad land. Critique by Rick Poynor

Web-only Critique written exclusively for

The six faces stare out from the poster defiantly. It takes only a moment to realise that they all belong to the same woman. The police mugshots chart the decline of a drug addict over eight years. In the first picture, she is hard-faced, but still well turned-out and pretty. By the final image, her features have become gaunt and haggard. Her ravaged cheeks have collapsed like a balloon emptied of air, pulling the flesh tight against her cheekbones. She looks half dead and it is quite possible by now that she is.

The poster is the centrepiece of a Crackdown on Drugs campaign launched in London at the start of November by the Metropolitan Police Service. Its aim is to drive drug dealers out of sixteen London boroughs, including Camden, Croydon, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. A copy line under the photos reads: ‘Don’t let drug dealers change the face of your neighbourhood.’ Anyone with information is invited to make an anonymous call to Crimestoppers, an independent charity, on the phone number supplied.

Confidentiality laws prevent the use of British police images in this way. Roseanne Holland, the woman in the pictures, is American. She was 37 when the last photo was taken and Florida police were unable to locate her to obtain her permission. Photographs of two other American women, Penny Wood, who is now drug-free and recovering, and Melissa Collara, a young prostitute with a crack habit, also feature in the campaign, which encompasses billboards, press ads, radio, night club flyers and beer mats. Wood gave the campaign her full support; Collara’s whereabouts are unknown.

Police files must contain thousands of visual stories as sad as this, but only arresting officers and case workers ever see them. An art director could not have staged a more telling illustration of the devastation that Class A drugs can cause. The angle of Holland’s head shifts from picture to picture. Her blond hair becomes progressively more unkempt. The set of her mouth barely alters, but her dark eyes look increasingly lost.

These pictures are, though, undeniably exploitative. Holland’s personal tragedy is reduced to the destruction of her face, which becomes a metaphor for drug addiction’s corrosive effect on the community. Denied her dignity, paraded in public as a pathetic example to others, she becomes less than human. ‘I just want these young people and old to know what this stuff does to your insides as well as the outward appearance,’ writes Wood in a letter to the Met, but the images dwell insistently on the surface – on the horror of decay. Feminist writer Yvonne Roberts suggests that by focusing on the impact drugs have on physical appearance, the Crimestoppers campaign sends a subliminal message that loss of looks is the worst thing that can befall a woman.

A new Amnesty International advertising campaign about domestic violence against women is tangled in similar confusion. The posters, art directed to resemble cosmetics ads, appear to show beautiful women applying ordinary make-up. Look closer and it becomes apparent that they are attempting to conceal cuts and bruises – ‘When you need an extra-sensitive touch’, reads the copy line. It would be neither possible nor desirable to show real victims of domestic violence, but depicting the problem in the shape of images of attractive models is a strange way of highlighting the issue. The Amnesty ads are supposed to encourage men to take the epidemic of domestic violence seriously – ‘Problem? What problem?’ they ask – yet they pander to masculine expectations, instilled by men’s magazines and advertising, that women should look a certain way. In feminist terms, they objectify them. Women’s worth is once again tied to appearances and any sense of individuality or personal history goes missing.

Karmarama, the agency responsible, believes that more conventional images of perpetrators and victims no longer have much effect. They hope that men will be ‘disturbed’ by their ads. There is something distastefully fetishistic, though, about the image of a model’s otherwise flawless and imperturbable features bearing a bruise like an accessory. There is no real pain in the picture and it brings to mind previous ‘ironic’ fashion photographs spiced up by simulated wounds. The Crimestoppers campaign at least has the virtue of being real, which gives it some gravitas. What both campaigns inadvertently confirm is that, when it comes to representations of women, the assumption that they are defined above all by their looks is as tenacious as ever.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.