Removing a Truth, or Leg, for the Greater Good

Many years ago, a New York journalist wrote scathingly about City Hall, but found himself criticized for having committed serious factual errors. We’ll leave his name out of this because he is no longer with us. De mortuis, and all that. The point is that when the lapses became known, he shrugged them off, saying they did not undermine “the larger truth” he had conveyed.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

We now have another “larger truth” moment after a basic fact has been called into question. This time, it’s City Hall that is shrugging.

At issue is an anti-diabetes campaign just begun by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It’s the one with a poster of a seriously overweight man perched on a stool, cups of soda lined up in front of him. His right leg has been amputated below the knee. Nearby, crutches lean against a wall.

The message is that supersized portions of sugary drinks — and by extension, of fast food in general — have become routine, and as a result, so has the incidence of adult-onset diabetes. And diabetes, the ads warn, “can lead to amputations.”

Indeed it can. It is hard to argue against the poster’s admonition that if people reduced the amount of junk that they consumed, they would reduce their health risks. We are, after all, trapped in an obesity epidemic. Every sensible person understands that something needs to be done. The health department is doing its part.

Here’s the catch, though. That overweight man in the poster? He’s an actor named Cleo Berry. More important, he has two legs that work just fine. The health department’s advertising agency took a stock photo of him and altered it to make it look as if his leg had been cut off.

By the department’s count, diabetes leads to 3,000 amputations a year in this city. Among the thousands, was there not one man or woman who would have posed for the ad in the name of saving others?

Legally, there was no problem with altering the actor’s picture; he had signed a release permitting it. But did the ad agency — and thus its employer, the city — act ethically? Doesn’t a photo so heavily doctored amount to cheating?

The municipal response boils down to the “larger truth” defense.

Sunday night, in an exchange of messages with me on Twitter, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson rejected any suggestion of cheating. The poster’s claims about the perils of diabetes are “100% accurate,” he wrote. As for relying on an actor, Mr. Wolfson said, “many institutions, including your own, feature actors in ads.”

That is so. But they don’t usually distort reality so thoroughly as to maim the images of those actors — “Photochop” them to borrow from a New York Post headline on Monday.

Granted, tampering with pictures has been around almost since the birth of photography. A popular image of Lincoln was created by grafting his head to the ramrod-straight body of John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century vice president. Stalin erased his political enemies from photos. So did Mao. Questions still arise about the authenticity of Robert Capa’s iconic “Falling Soldier,” taken in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

With advertising, it is understood that the subjects of photo shoots are routinely enhanced to sell products. Nothing explicitly forbids it in the “standards of practice” adopted by the 4A’s, as the American Association of Advertising Agencies calls itself.

But the association’s “creative code” does include a pledge not to produce advertising that contains “false or misleading statements or exaggerations, visual or verbal.” That missing leg might qualify as visually misleading. At a minimum, it comes awfully close to crossing a line.

Nonetheless, the city clings to the “larger truth” doctrine.

“What’s important about this particular issue isn’t one creative choice but rather the 1.4 million New Yorkers who struggle with obesity, too many of whom contract diabetes and must undergo amputations to save their lives,” John Kelly, a health department spokesman, said in an e-mail to me on Monday.

Another city official said that, in this regard, “government is being held to a higher standard” than commercial enterprises are.

Yes it is. Shouldn’t it be?

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