Meet the Former Marketer Fighting to Legally Regulate Photoshop in Advertising

Seth Matlins quit a lucrative job to change the world in which his kids live. Namely, by getting the government to do away with misleadingly altered images.
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Seth Matlins quit a lucrative job to change the world in which his kids live. Namely, by getting the government to do away with misleadingly altered images.
A Julia Roberts for Lancome ad that was banned in the U.K.

A Julia Roberts for Lancome ad that was banned in the U.K.

Kids say the darndest things, the expression goes. 

But as Seth Matlins learned, the darndest things aren't always cute and funny. 

"Two weeks ago, my daughter -- apropos to nothing -- looks up at me as I'm putting her to bed and she says, 'Daddy, do you think I'm ugly?'" Matlins tells Fashionista. "My heart shatters into a thousand pieces, and I don't even know what to say."

It's this type of thinking that inspired Matlins, a former CMO for LiveNation, to quit what he calls a "pretty successful, pretty lucrative career" in 2010. As someone who worked in marketing, Matlins says he understood how everything worked. However, he confesses, he wasn't always aware of how much advertising could affect people. Then his daughter, and oldest child, hit about three years old and suddenly the way he viewed the world totally changed -- and what he saw didn't make him very happy. 

"At the risk sounding like a total daddy cliché, I was pretty wrapped around her finger," Matlins explains. "I began to look at the world and see the world through the eyes of this little girl, and I began to see all of the things that could get in the way of her being the happiest version of herself."

So he and his wife started a blog that would become Feel More Better, with the aim of "disrupting" the self-help talk aimed at young women and girls. "We believed if we could talk about how fucked up we were, we could all be a little less fucked up," he says. 

It wasn't until Matlins read about Jo Swinson, a member of British Parliament who successfully took down two beauty billboards -- one by Lancome (above) and one by Maybelline -- for overuse of Photoshop, that he thought about what similar actions could be taken here in the United States. "We were going to put that story up on our site, but before I could put it up I thought, 'Who the hell is doing that here? Who is looking out for my kids, for all kids, here in the United States from the legislature?' and I didn't find anybody," Matlins explains. 

Three years later, Matlins has teamed up with the Eating Disorders Coalition on a bipartisan bill dubbed the "Truth in Advertising Act." The bill proposes that the Federal Trade Commission simply exercise powers that it already has -- like regulating advertisements -- and apply them on a broader scale. Matlins isn't sure if that will mean disclosure labeling, media restrictions (like those exercised in the U.K.), or a ratings system. What the bill won't change is Photoshop practices in editorial work. "Editorial [work] -- individual and artistic expressions -- has First Amendment protections that are much broader and much more sacrosanct than commercial speech," Matlins explains.

So while overly Photoshopped magazine covers and the like wouldn't be affected by the bill, advertisements would -- and they are inarguably a huge part of the problem. According to Matlins, and others who have signed his Change.org petition, Photoshop has become so pervasive in advertising that it's causing a public health crisis. 

And while that may sound dramatic, he's certainly got the figures to back up his claims. According to Matlins, teenagers who suffer from poor body image are more likely to engage in a range of harmful behaviors, from bullying and risky sexual practices to eating disorders and cutting. The average American woman has 13 self-hating thoughts a day, per his research. In 2011, the American Medical Association even developed a Photoshop policy, and made a point to inform the media industry that excessive Photoshop was doing real harm to children and young adults. 

And still, Matlins says, the industry refuses to self-regulate. He's asked leading figures and associations in the advertising world to come to the table, so to speak, and their responses so far have been along the lines of: "We have more pressing issues to address." That's why, according to Matlins, it's time for the government, via the FTC, to step in.

A cynic would point out that Matlins himself once made a pretty nice living by selling these same ideals and images, and he doesn't disagree. "My house was built on advertising, my kids go to school based on the money I made in that business," he admits.

"Am I aware of the fact that ads can make us and do make us feel less than? I am certainly aware of that," he explains. "The Evian ads I worked on made me feel less than! I mean those guys were ripped! And yet it was not until I had my children that I really understood it and that I really felt that I had to do something to make their world a better place."

Seth Matlins. Photo: Courtesy

Seth Matlins. Photo: Courtesy

So back to that moment tucking his daughter into bed: What did Matlins ultimately tell her? 

"You search for what you hope the right words will be, and I tell her that of course she's the most beautiful thing in the world to me -- along with her brother -- and then I say to her, 'What if you were ugly? Why would that matter? Why would that be a bad thing?' It's just another attribute of who we are,"  he says.

"As a parent, you understand unconditional love, and unconditional love will make you do crazy things," he explains. "I left behind a pretty successful career to do this, and sometimes I look at the big check I didn't cash every two weeks and I think, 'That was dumb!' But if I can help my kids and other kids grow up happier, I'll feel good."