Mark Ritson on branding: Beauty is in the eye of the retoucher

Film star Clive Owen has been confirmed as the new face of Lancome. Owen, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Closer in 2004, will be featured in a major advertising campaign this spring for one of Lancome's fragrances and an anti-ageing cream.

Odile Roujol, general manager of Lancome International, insisted last week that Owen was the perfect choice to front the campaign. 'He is an incredibly talented, intelligent and appealing man,' she said.

Owen is also one of the few celebrities to have openly admitted to having had plastic surgery. At the recent premiere for the film Children of Men, he told a journalist from The Independent: 'I've had tons of surgery done, but I can't say what on.'

Should Lancome be concerned that the face for its anti-ageing products owes part of his good looks to the surgeon's knife and not their wonderful products? Of course not. Lancome, like every other cosmetics brand, uses advertising as a fantastical attempt to build dreams, rather than a realistic method of communicating actual product advantages.

In many ways, Owen's upcoming advertising campaign for Lancome will probably be among the more truthful beauty campaigns for 2007. At least Owen really looks that good, even if it is because of surgery. The dirty secret of the advertising world has always been the degree to which reality is altered and improved in post-production to enhance or exaggerate an ad's impact.

At least as much time is now spent digitally retouching the images that appear in advertising as taking the actual image in the first place. Every major ad agency in Britain has high-powered computers and advanced software that allow them to turn fat to thin, spotty to spotless, and plain to beautiful. When there is a really difficult job, the agencies turn to a high-end independent retouching house such as Taylor James.

I remember talking to the chief executive of one of the world's biggest luxury brands last year. His creative director had selected a famous US singer to be the face of the brand and the chief executive had gone along to watch the shoot. A week later he had been both fascinated and appalled by the results. The images in front of him looked nothing like the scene he had witnessed with his own eyes the previous week. His celebrity had become thinner, whiter and almost unrecognisable from the woman he had seen a week earlier. 'Mark,' he said to me, 'I could not believe it! I will never look at advertising the same way again.'

Provided consumers never find out, the wholesale digital fakery that goes into almost every major ad campaign will remain a secret industry standard. Only inexperienced advertisers are surprised by the use of digital alteration.

Last year, for example, a charity campaign was delayed when the London-based supermodel featured in the campaign would not approve the final ads. Her agent was very clear when the charity asked what the problem was: 'She does not like the way her legs look - too fat. Get them fixed.'

As an undergraduate, I was taught advertising theory by a very frightening neo-Marxist, who used her classes to rail against the evils of the discipline which, she felt, bombarded consumers with unattainable images that only a select few could achieve. She only knew the half of it. The images of beauty that we see presented to us through advertising are not achievable even for the people in the ads.

30 SECONDS ON ... LANCOME

- Lancome is marketed in more than 140 countries across three continents: Europe, the US and Asia. It is a prestige cosmetics division of L'Oreal.

- The firm was founded in 1935 by Armand Petitjean. Named after a chateau called Lancosme in the Loiret region, the company launched its first five fragrances at the World's Fair in Brussels later the same year.

- Petitjean grew roses in his garden in Ville d'Avray, and chose the flower as the symbol of his fragrances. The emblem is a traditional round rose with a curved stem, based on the works of Belgian painter Pierre Joseph Redoute.

- Lancome's product range is split between three sectors: skincare, make-up and fragrances.

- Actress Isabella Rossellini fronted the brand for 14 years from 1982. Spokeswomen since have included Uma Thurman and Drew Barrymore.

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