A recent study by Warwick Business School found that the age-old (actually most likely decades-old—thanks, Mad Men) ad strategy to sell products by featuring skinny, beautiful women in advertisements can actually backfire. Surprised?
Participants in this particular study, first published in a paper titled Defensive Reactions To Slim Female Images In Advertising: The Moderating Role Of Mode Of Exposure were shown magazine pages of different advertisements, one of which was for vodka. Some received ads with a pretty model, some received pages with a model in a bikini on the opposite page from the vodka, and some had the model next to or holding the vodka.
According to the Daily Mail, researchers found that women are actually turned off by products when they are featured next to large-scale or close-up imagery of female models and celebrities. And this isn’t the first time research has shown that images of thin women aren’t exactly motivating. Another recent study found that women were more likely to gain weight when shown imagery of thin women.
Dr. Tamara Ansons, one of the researchers, thinks that, in her study, this is because a pretty model triggers a coping mechanism in women (the emotion of scorn) which ultimately helps them feel better about their own looks. Refinery29 says, ”…the obvious pandering creates a defensive mechanism in the viewer.”
Side rant: I’ve always wondered about this kind of advertising, more so when ads show thin women in a sexualized way. Like, why would I, as a woman, want to to buy this thing that’s trying to sell me women’s sexuality? I’m already sexual. I’m already a woman. I’m smart enough to know that I’m not actually going to look like Miranda Kerr or Adriana Lima in my Victoria’s Secret bra, so why show them all bedroom-eyed, gyrating with windblown hair? I guess Victoria’s Secret ads are also heavily geared towards men, so that’s a large factor but many, many brands (perfume brands, other clothing brands, and more) do this kind of thing….I just don’t get it. (This is just me talking from my perspective as a straight-identified cisgender woman, so if you have another point-of-view, I’d love to hear it). Ok, side rant over!
Researchers in this study also found that when women were shown advertisements in a less prominent position, shoppers responded better. If the model is more incorporated into the scene (aka not the complete center of attention), women will be more likely to have a good reaction to both the ad and the product itself. Dr. Ansons said:
…when subtly exposed to these perfectly shaped models consumers do not engage in defensive coping by disparaging the model. Instead it leads to negative self-evaluation but does not interfere with their evaluation of the pictured model. Thus, the generally positive evaluation of the model leads to a favourable reaction to the product she is endorsing.
Fascinating, right? It certainly makes sense to me, despite the fact that it pretty much goes against the way us consumers think about what goes on in the advertising world. It’s good to know, though, that images that are often categorized as psychologically-damaging to women might actually be, in some ways, making them both feel better about their looks and allowing them to save some money. I’m interested to see if advertising will change as a result of this research; it seems unlikely (and would take forever to actually affect any change, I imagine), but it’s certainly something to mull over.