Surprise! 'Real'-Looking Models Mean We Buy More
Real-looking models, as seen here in the wildly popular Dove ads, or the type with the razor-sharp hip bones you usually see strutting the runways?
If you answered the type favored by high fashion, you'd be wrong, at least according to new research by a Cambridge PhD student.
Ben Barry gathered a few thousand women on both sides of the pond and analyzed what type of glossy ad model would most propel them to pull out their wallets and spend, spend, spend. Barry's full report won't be released for a few more months, but he agreed to give MyDaily a sneak peek at his findings on how we react to models who look like us -- or don't.
MyDaily: What inspired you to dissect and analyze the complex spending habits of the average female shopper?
Ben Barry: It was the incredible success of Dove's "Campaign For Real Beauty." Within six months of launching the ads -- featuring women of various ages, sizes, and races -- sales jumped by 700 percent in the U.K and 600 percent in the U.S. just two months after they ran. This was directly linked to the fact that a range of models were used, since the majority of the brand's products weren't new to the market. Yet, despite such enormous success, no other brands followed suit. Advertisers weren't sure whether Dove's approach increased sales because women actually wanted to see diverse models or whether it was simply a novelty that generated media attention. When I looked at previous research done on the topic of models in advertising, I found that studies just focused on the impact models had on self-esteem and body image. So I decided to see whether Dove was an anomaly or if there was an actual change in the consumer mindset.
What was the makeup of your test pool? Are we talking women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds?
My sample included over 3,000 females from Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The women ranged in age from 14 to 65, had varying income levels, were of African and Caucasian descent, and wore dress sizes from zero to 24.
Did any of the study's results truly surprise you?
The feedback from my sample group didn't completely surprise me because almost every woman I'd informally told about the project had the same response: "It's about time fashion ads showed women like me!" But three of my conclusions were particularly interesting: In general, women are more likely to purchase a fashion product when they see a model resembling their size, age, and race in the advertisement. That said, a thin, young, white woman therefore increased her buying when the model reflected her traits, suggesting that there isn't going to be an end to the size zero, but rather a move toward more body diversity. Second, I found that simply using a curvy or older model isn't enough -- consumers want these models to evoke the same glamour and artistry as traditional fashion models. My study also challenges the belief that black models don't sell products to Caucasian audiences; I found that consumers are just as likely to purchase a product from a black model as from a white one.
Were there any drastic differences in the responses you got from younger versus older women who participated in the study?
Regardless of whether or not the models shared similar traits with them, some younger women increased their buying when models exemplified the "beauty ideal," because the shoppers believed the models' looks were achievable. In contrast, no older participants increased their buying when they saw such models because they believed the representations were inauthentic, unattainable, and even undesirable.
What about men? Do they also look for models who resemble them when weighing what they will or will not buy?
With the explosion of fashion brands and magazines for men, they're now bombarded with their own version of a singular beauty ideal. While my research didn't focus on men, I think they've learned from women's experiences and are also becoming savvy and skeptical viewers. To that end, we're starting to see men's brands and magazines featuring more diverse male models in their marketing.
It's all about the bottom line; fashion is a business. The philosophy behind using models that differ from consumers is to create an image that shoppers can aspire to but not actually achieve. As a result, consumers demand new products in the hope that they can attain that model look one day. Other brands believe that consumers view the differences between models and themselves as "problems," which can only be corrected by buying the advertised products.
Are there any big-name brands, besides Dove, that have tried the "real woman" route with positive results more recently?
Several fashion brands have slowly and cautiously started to feature diverse models in their fashion week shows, including Chanel, Tom Ford, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. The successes speak for themselves: retailer Browns Focus, which exclusively stocks British designer Mark Fast, reported that a week after Fast sent several curvy models down the runway, he became the retailer's second best-selling line.
So what's the over-arching message of your study?
There's been a shift in the mindset of today's female consumers, who reject artifice and crave authenticity. Case in point: Essentials, a British women's magazine, announced last October that they would no longer feature models in their publication. The decision increased sales 12.7 percent.
Related: "I Was Plucked Off the Street to Become a Male Dove Model"
See the real-looking models for Dove strut their stuff below:
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