Forensic analysts look for abnormal data patterns that allow them to catch bad guys doing bad things, with many economics applications. One of their recent non-economics triumphs has been to catch Victoria’s Secret’s blatant photo- shopping of their ads, notably the example below (HT to Tyler Cowen as usual). The most obvious giveaway is that they snatched the young lady’s handbag out of her right hand, leaving her holding – nothing. This made the forensic photo expert suspicious and he also caught Victoria’s Secret in more subtle photo shopping. Most predictably, they increased the young lady’s bust size. (This is documented in way more expert detail than you really want.) Not only does Victoria’s Secret objectify women to be like their gorgeous models, but even the models have to be objectified to be their concept of a fantasy woman.
I’m not a marketing expert, but I'm not sure “wear our stuff and you might look good enough to be photo-shopped” is the best ad campaign.
To Victoria’s Secret’s credit, after they got caught, they undid some of the photo-shopping and reposted the picture on their web site. They gave the young lady back her handbag. However, they did not undo the fake bust.
I realize that this is all pretty tame compared with the expectations raised by the headline. But Aid Watch NEVER exploits supermodels! Even here, I refrained from giving a far more sexy, hyper-objectified female example of photo-shopping.
Forensic economics does similar things with patterns in data rather than photos. Ray Fisman at Columbia famously caught some Indonesian companies as corruptly linked to Suharto, because their stock prices would fall whenever Suharto got sick. Ray has made a specialty of this – he also caught some countries smuggling art and antiques, using discrepancies between their exports of these items to country X and the country X data on imports of these items from these same countries.
So here’s the challenge – can we use forensic economics to keep tabs on aid agencies? Oops, I forgot, there's a lot fewer people who care about aid than Victoria's Secret models. Can both of you please forward your suggestions on forensic aid evaluation?