Ominous warnings on everything from packs of cigarettes to fast food kids’ meals have become an international phenomenon. Although the disclaimers are intended to warn consumers of the exact nature of their purchase, and in some cases do work, a new study from Chapman University in California found that adding these disclaimers or “subvertisements” to advertisements featuring bikini-clad models does absolutely nothing to help improve women’s body image.

In 1990 Thomas and John Knoll teamed up with Adobe to release the first version of Photoshop, and the world of advertising has never been the same. Now, with a few keystrokes anyone can look any way. However, it didn’t take long before we started to see a connection between photoshopped images of unrealistic and unattainable bodies and the unhealthy way real girls and women felt about their own authentic bodies. Although this problem existed in all demographics, it was most pronounced in young women. Hoping to counteract the toll these pictures take on many women’s self esteem, some advertising agencies have proposed using disclaimers to warn viewers that the bodies in the pictures are not realistic. Some advertisers have taken a different route, and rather than use disclaimers employ something called subvertising, which makes parodies of corporate and political advertisements.

To better understand how effective these ploys are in counteracting the negative effects of altered images on women’s psyches, the Chapman University researchers recruited 2,288 women across two studies and had them look at images of advertisements featuring slim women. The average age of women participating in the surveys was 35 and the women were split into three groups. The first group was shown unaltered advertisements of women in bikinis. The second was shown the same images only with disclaimers in red stating “WARNING, this photo has been Photoshopped.” Lastly, the third group of women saw these images only after they had been subvertised with different messages written over them such as “Photoshop made me ripped” and “I’m thinking about the last cheeseburger I ate...5 years ago.” After viewing the images, the women were asked to complete established measures of body satisfaction and dieting, and also asked to compare their bodies to the models.

Results showed that women who saw images with disclaimers or that had been “subvertised” did not report any higher body satisfaction than women who were shown the unaltered images alone. In a recent statement, lead study author Dr. David Frederick said that the results suggest these approaches simply aren’t effective in reducing social desire to be thin, and it's time to look towards other alternatives.

It’s important to understand techniques that can help improve body satisfaction because low body satisfaction puts individuals at risk of eating disorders. Disordered eating, a descriptive phrase, and eating disorders, the diagnosis, are marked by restrictive eating patterns, diet pill use, skipping meals, and abstaining from major food groups. These eating habits have even been known to have serious, sometimes even life-threatening consequences such as muscle weakness, severe dehydration, and abnormal heart rate.

However, Frederick added that the subvertisement may not be completely useless: “Even if viewing the actual subvertisements does not benefit most women, the act of creating them may be a positive experience for women experiencing body dissatisfaction.”

Source: Frederick DA, Sandhu G, Scott T, Akbari Y. Reducing the negative effects of media exposure on body image: Testing the effectiveness of subvertising and disclaimer labels. Body Image . 2016