Real Women Not as Good as Skinny Women in Ads

Discussion
Aug 01, 2008

By George Anderson

The move by marketers to use “real” looking women has brought them positive publicity and, along with it, sales. A new study by professors at the College of New Jersey and Villanova University, however, suggests that these very same companies might have actually done better if they did away with using everyday women as models and just stuck with, well, real models.

Jeremy Kees, a business professor at Villanova, told AdAge.com, “The really interesting result we’re seeing across multiple studies is that these thin models make women feel bad, but they like it. They have higher evaluation of the brands. With the more regular-size models, they don’t feel bad. Their body image doesn’t change. But in terms of evaluations of the brands, those are actually lower.”

The exception to the above rule is in snack advertising (women prefer to see real women eating cookies than waiflike creatures) where women were four-times more likely to turn down an Oreo after seeing an ad with a thin model than one who was normal size.

While the research made a case for skinny models, it did not involve assessing ads in the marketplace that feature regular-sized women.

Unilever’s Dove brand, with its “Real Beauty” campaign, has no reservations about the effectiveness of its advertising. A company spokesperson said in a statement, “We believe women have the right to feel comfortable with their bodies and not suffer from lack of self-esteem brought on by images of excessive slimness… We are thrilled by the overwhelming positive responses we have received from women (and men) as a result of the campaign.”

The spokesperson added, “There is no question that women and young girls are being bombarded with unrealistic messages and images of beauty that impact their self-esteem. We are excited to see now (and have seen in the past couple of years) a growing trend towards more realistic and healthy looking women in advertising and in the media.”

Discussion Questions: Does the research from professors at the College of New Jersey and Villanova University make a stronger case for using thin models in ads or presenting images that bolster women’s self-esteem? Should brands be pushing buttons that may, in some way, be harmful/hurtful to consumers while generating sales or should they find a way to drive sales without making people feel bad about themselves?

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15 Comments on "Real Women Not as Good as Skinny Women in Ads"


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Laura Davis-Taylor
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Laura Davis-Taylor
13 years 9 months ago

As always, I agree with Nikki too. In addition, I realize that that “average” woman is a size 12 or 14…but there’s also the case for what the “average” ideal weight and body type should be..and it’s not 5’11” and 110 pounds with stick legs and jutting hip bones!

Many magazines (such as Self) are dedicated to showing healthy, fit, attractive women that have enviable bodies. They represent the “alpha end” of healthy role models, muscular and fit, not anorexic icons. I would like to see this same study comparing them against the Twiggy set and see what comes out on top!

Art Williams
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Art Williams
13 years 9 months ago

Marketing should showcase things in as favorable light as possible and make consumers desire their products. We have enough reality all around every day that we don’t also need it in advertising. A little fantasy in advertising is a welcome break from our increasingly obese world.

Marc Gordon
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Marc Gordon
13 years 9 months ago

Is the product being advertised supposed to make women feel better about who they are, or feel driven for what they could become? This question could be applied to every product and service ever marketed and should be the deciding factor between using real women or really good looking women.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Wow, that is a tricky one. I know when my wife and I view commercials with youthful “models” selling items like younger looking skin, or healthier bodies which have never had an ounce of excess weight, they are beyond belief. At the same time, viewing “models” who are not so glamorous, isn’t enough to initiate a response either. I don’t have a suggestion other than CBCs need to research their customers to get to know what really motivates them and don’t stand for stereotypes.

MARK DECKARD
Guest
MARK DECKARD
13 years 9 months ago

Does the picture of the Big Mac EVER look like the product that gets unceremoniously shoved into the bag? The marketing version of what is being sold ALWAYS looks better.

Thin is in. We’ve built a culture around aspiring to the best image we can imagine of ourselves.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
13 years 9 months ago

Sex Sells!

Madison Avenue created this Barbie syndrome decades ago and still makes use of it despite protestations to the contrary about “real people.” I’m not saying it’s right but that’s the way it is in advertising everything from bathing suits to the “hope in a bottle” at the cosmetics counter.

This is not about corporate responsibility or doing the right thing. It’s all about sales.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
13 years 9 months ago
First of all, it’s important to note that the study looked at women aged 18-24 only–college girls, basically. That in no way represents “all women.” Let’s look at a larger population before we start drawing conclusions. Last time I checked, women don’t stop buying stuff when they turn 25, and yet I would be willing to bet that the older you get, the less your self-perception is going to be influenced by advertising. But who knows, I could be wrong–someone please check! Second of all, there’s a difference between “skinny” women and women who have to do damaging things to their bodies in order to be “thin enough” to be a model. As the Dove parody suggests, no one really wants to look at ugly people in ads, but if your Body Mass Index puts you in the “starving refugee” category, you should not be rewarded with modeling mega-contracts. THAT aspect of the industry needs to change. One last thing to keep in mind: this study only looked at short term impacts. But what are… Read more »
Anne Howe
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

I am not sure that ads with thin models always make women feel bad about themselves, since part of advertising’s function is to create desire, and many times this is done via an “aspirational” execution. Do some ads over do it? No question. But there is a job to be done in the communications business–that is to create motivation for the consumer to change behavior. As a marketer, it’s your job to find out if thin models are inspiring your target audience to make a lifestyle change in order to be able to wear that dress shown in your ad campaign. Or, conversely, if a “real” 55 year old body and some “straight talk” advice about skin care post menopause resonates better. Both can be very effective, much depends on the mindset of the audience, which the marketer is supposed to understand in the development process of the ad, and then address.

Andrea Learned
Guest
Andrea Learned
13 years 9 months ago

Younger women are in a stage in life where aspirational beauty is certainly important. And, any clothing, skincare, or cosmetic brand knows that and speaks to it. However, this study can’t account for what “all women everywhere” do or think in all categories of consumer products.

In general, this is an interesting bit of new research, but marketers always need to do their homework on the very unique group of women they serve–making no assumptions. Sex often sells, whether we want to admit it or not–but our culture is changing quite a bit, in terms of gender roles, stereotypes and conflicts–and marketers need to work even harder to stay on top of the subtleties.

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
13 years 9 months ago

I agree with Nikki that the study raises more questions. I believe it depends on the product. For years my Mom refused to go to Bally’s because she thought only skinny women worked out there. On the other hand when Curves started advertising, she joined up right away. I have a sister who would change the channel because skinny women on commercials made her self conscious if she was watching TV with her husband. Women are self conscious by nature.

Creating the right marketing message that will make your customer want to watch your commercial is key. If you’re selling a convertible, a sexy, young model would probably work best. If you’re selling Bandaids, you probably want a real “Mom” figure. Sales 101 tells you to relate to your customer, be “like” your customer, help them feel comfortable with you and know your audience.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
13 years 9 months ago

This is an issue about doing the right thing. As a father of two young beautiful girls, I applaud companies for using real women and promoting a healthy body image. My wife and I look for companies and products that promote women in healthy ways. Even if the money is less, this is about being responsible. I believe more customers are looking for this as well.

Liz Crawford
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Right. Aspiration, not realism, is the name of the game in fashion and cosmetics. Remember hope in a bottle? Well, hope lies in skinny jeans too.

Susan Rider
Guest
Susan Rider
13 years 9 months ago

Very few women want to look average or want to look at an average looking woman in a size 14 outfit and say, “Wow, I want to look like that.” There is an advantage to using older models when you are trying to reach an older demographic. Or using the appropriate age for the segment you are trying to reach. But average people won’t be successful. Woman buy beauty products, clothes, and accessories to make them feel better, to look better and to boost their self esteem. An average looking person doesn’t make them feel better. It’s all in the illusion.

David Livingston
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Companies should be focusing on driving sales and not worrying about feelings or self esteem. Remember, men see these ads too and it’s no secret that skinny attractive women will get more attention from both men and women. Men will fantasize about them and women will fantasize about being them.

Mark Lilien
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

“Women” is not a niche category slice of “the market.” Neither is “men.” And what is “the market”? Dove wants to improve market share in a very crowded category with many similar products. Some categories have way fewer brands. A brand manager trying to improve market share considers the competitive map. For some brands, in some markets, maximizing mass appeal isn’t a practical goal. For M-A-C cosmetics, a higher-end niche is a reasonable goal. For Revlon, mass appeal is the audience. Very few brands can reasonably appeal to “everyone” or “all men and women” or “women” or “men.”

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