Why Fashion Advertisers Should Ignore Women Who Complain About Skinny Models

Last Updated Mar 22, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

Everyone hates skinny models in ads, and there are good reasons for doing so: They're often dangerously thin. They're often actually children, and not the adult women who're expected to buy the clothes. And they don't reflect what men actually find attractive about women, even though making women more attractive to the opposite sex is part of what fashion is supposed to do.

But fashion advertisers now have an academically rigorous reason to ignore all this: A new study by Prof. Naomi Mandel of Arizona State University's business school suggests that ads featuring "plus-size" -- i.e. normal-size -- models are less effective than those that use thin models. Both overweight and normal-weight female consumers have lower self-esteem after seeing larger models in ads. If this is true, it's a problem for advertisers such as Unilever (UL) and its Dove soap brand, which has based its entire campaign around "real" beauty (pictured).

Mandel concludes that such ads would therefore be less likely to make women buy the product in question. (Although, given that products are often promoted as the "solution" to low self-esteem, her conclusion is debatable.)

Her experiment is borne out by real-life experience. Fashion retailers that have approached the market with "realistic" ideas about women have often failed, or never been popular. Ralph Lauren and his ilk, by contrast, have thrived no matter how unfeasibly bony their models have been.

Here's an example. In 2004, The Gap (GPS) launched a chain of stores for "older" women (i.e. the 35 and up crowd). It was called Forth & Towne. On paper, this was a good idea: Such women have higher incomes and buy more clothes than their 18 to 34-year-old counterparts. Why not target them instead of their daughters? Some of the brand's ads featured models in their 50s. Gap pulled the plug on Forth & Towne in 2007. The reason: In their minds, women are permanently 22 and skinny. Fashion is aspirational -- consumers want it to make them more (or less) of what they actually are. Hence the highly illogical phenomenon of buying a pair of jeans and then going on a diet to fit into them.

Women may say they want realistic models in ads. But there's a difference between what they say and how they actually spend their money.

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