'Shocking' promotions of cosmetic procedures lead to calls for regulation and industry code of practice

The author of a major report from a medical think-tank has said she is "shocked" by some methods used by companies to market cosmetic treatments and "bombard" social media users with messages.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has today published a wide-ranging report entitled 'Cosmetic procedures: ethical issues', which makes a total of 27 recommendations for companies offering surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments and the agencies they work with, as well as policymakers, government, the NHS and the Advertising Standards Authority.

The report begins: "The Nuffield Council on Bioethics considers that the growing proliferation, promotion and use of cosmetic procedures deserves more detailed ethical consideration." It argues that these promotions are often not accompanied by adequate warnings of these treatments' risks and limitations.

It says: "There is also evidence to suggest that the promotion of 'new' procedures, such as the popular 'designer vagina' or 'leg rejuvenation', helps create new reasons to be anxious about additional parts of the body, as well as generating a new market for a commercially motivated industry."

Jeanette Edwards, professor of social anthropology from the University of Manchester, who chaired the Council’s inquiry, said: "We've been shocked by some of the evidence we've seen, including makeover apps and cosmetic surgery 'games' that target girls as young as nine.

"There is a daily bombardment from advertising and through social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat that relentlessly promote unrealistic and often discriminatory messages on how people, especially girls and women, 'should’ look."

The report also notes a reported example of a celebrity being offered liposuction by a company for free, if she agreed to post about the company on Instagram.

Recommendations

Among the recommendations of the report are that the ASA prohibits "advertising that is likely to create body confidence issues, or cause pressure to conform to an unrealistic or unhealthy body shape", or promotions which imply a link between cosmetic procedures and emotional benefits.

Another recommendation is that social media companies fund a programme looking at "how social media contributes to appearance anxiety, and how this can be minimised", and take action accordingly.

While no recommendations specifically point to PR agencies, one of them refers to a potential code of practice which would apply to people working for companies offering cosmetic procedures.

It says: "We recommend that the major providers of cosmetic procedures jointly develop a code of best practice to which they, and all practitioners working in their name, should adhere." Such a code should include "recognition of the importance of clear distinctions between sales staff and practitioners, with 'consultations' and 'advice' only offered by appropriately qualified staff", it goes on to say.

Commenting on the report, Jo Spink, founder of the healthcare agency Spink, said: "There is an urgent need for better regulation of the devices and injectables that are readily available, many of which have the potential to cause serious side effects."

"As an agency we would only every consider working with a company who had rigorous clinical and safety data to support their product."

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