Skinny Models Hurt Brands, Study Finds

Cristen Conger

Skinny could be a brand liability.
Skinny could be a brand liability.
© Sam Diephuis/Corbis

For female consumers, fat-free, pretty catalog models can conjure ugly thoughts about brands, a new study out of the University of Manitoba has found. Previous studies on how women respond to advertising images of slender ladies has produced mixed results, with some finding that they amplify self-satisfaction and others concluding that they diminish it. According to this new data, the difference might boil down to subtlety. Less is more, in other words, when it comes how size-0 gals influence brand perception. A study author Tamara Ansons explained "We showed that when exposure to these images of beautiful models is subtle, a sub-conscious automatic process of upward social comparison takes place leading to a negative self-perception. But that led to a more positive attitude towards the brand."

Unfortunately, I couldn't access a full copy of the study to find out more details on precisely how the researchers orchestrated the studies, but its press release cited a vodka ad as an example. Female participants formed more positive impressions of the booze brand when a full-page ad didn't also feature a bikini-clad model. I also wonder what would've happened if the researchers had dressed the model in less revealing attire, rather than moving her closer or farther from the bottle of vodka, but again, I'm just going off the abstract and press releases here.

No matter where the "slim" model was, however, she had a consistently bulldozing effect on women's self-esteem. The idealized female image activated negative self-image, sometimes resulting in participants criticizing the model as well as the brand she represents. On the up side for marketers, when slim models were more accessories than main features in ads, women still sized themselves up against the model-esque measurements, but didn't ding the brand in the process. To which lead study author Fang Wan said offers public policy implications for regulating advertisements to protect against this subconscious storm of negative self-evaluation. But maybe the louder message should be directed toward brands that unrealistic images of women might not be the effective ad moving inventory.