Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Before and After: The Contrast Principle

Many hair, beauty and skincare advertisements use before and after pictures to show the effect of the product being advertised. A recent example for a La Roche-Posay product that claims to give you clearer skin in 4 weeks is shown below.

You may have noticed that, as in the La Roche-Posay ad, the after pictures have often been digitally enhanced, other products have been used and the person may even be smiling more! All of these factors ‘improve’ the look of the after photograph but are not a direct result of the product being advertised. Some advertisers go to such great lengths when enhancing the after photo that their ads end up being banned. For example, Johnson & Johnson had one of their ads banned by the Advertising Standards Association for misleading customers as their after photo wasn’t just the result of using the skincare product being advertised, but also due to using other cosmetics.

So, the question is why do companies use this technique when advertising their products, even though they are at greater risk of getting their ads banned?

The answer is the contrast principle. This is the idea that when you see two slightly different things one after another, the second seems more different to the first than it really is. In this instance, the ‘after’ photo appears more attractive when shown following the ‘before’ photo than it would appear if shown on its own.

Kenrick and Gutierres (1980) investigated the contrast principle and showed that male students rated a photo of an ‘average looking’ female as less attractive if they first watched an episode of Charlie’s Angels, in which the three main female characters are said to be ‘strikingly attractive’. This was in comparison to a control group, in which the students did not watch any TV programme.

This is exactly the technique that is at play here, although the comparison is reversed, so that what is seen second is viewed as more attractive. The after pictures are heavily enhanced so as to make it seem as though the product being advertised leads to greater benefits than it would if the after photo was shown alone.


Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgements of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 131-140.

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