Fashion Doesn't Need to Make Women Feel Like Shit in Order to Make Us Go Shopping

Brands often say that they rely on a cast of extremely young, acutely thin, and overwhelmingly white models because fashion is supposed to be "aspirational" — that if you can't envy the body and youth of a skinny Eastern European teenager in a glossy magazine, then you can't envy her dress either. Says who?

Modeling agency founder and academic Ben Barry had some questions about the fashion industry and its advertising, but he could find no research into consumers' choices that actually demonstrated casting such models motivated them to buy clothing or accessories. So he decided to do some for his Ph.D.

To conduct a study into the impacts models have on consumer choices, Barry first mocked up eight ads for the same Diane Von Furstenberg dress. The ads were identical in concept and art direction, but showcased models of different ages, body size, and race. Barry randomly selected two of the ads and showed them to women. He didn't tell them that he was studying their reactions to the models; he just asked them which ad made them want to buy the dress.

These were his results:

  • Women increased their purchase intentions by more than 200% when the models in the mock ads were their size
  • Women increased their purchase intentions by over 175% when they saw models who reflected their age
  • Black women were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model

Barry then held focus groups with women across the U.S. and Canada where he asked them about the impact that model casting in ads had on their purchasing behavior. All told, he spoke to more than 2,500 women. His subjects told him that they preferred to buy clothing advertised by women who looked somewhat like them for simple reasons: they could see how it fit, they felt included in the brand's messaging, and they were more able to imagine themselves participating in the aesthetic fantasy of the ad. This is significant, writes Barry, because "While one side of the debate over model diversity argues that curvy models should replace thin ones — assuming that one model is universally more effective than another — I find that every model type can be effective. Their effectiveness depends on whether the model shares the consumers' traits."

Solipsistic? Maybe. But public health advocates and feminists have spent decades agitating against advertisers' preference for a narrow beauty ideal on grounds that such images can hurt the self esteem of women and girls — to almost no avail. The models who fill the pages of the women's magazines and populate the billboards and pop up on retailers' Web sites are as skinny, young, and white as they ever were. Making a well-reasoned appeal for diversity on behalf of the bottom line, however, just might work.

Barry also found that the women he interviewed, who ranged in age from 14-65, were very savvy at picking up on brands' cues about what "kind" of person is welcome in their clothing. Putting on the runway plus-size models — as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Mark Fast, and Chanel have each done, with varying levels of commitment — or models of different ages — as Calvin Klein did for Fall '10 — is nice, but not when it smacks of a stunt. "When two of 20 models on a runway are larger or older, consumers appreciate the gesture but believe it's tokenistic," reports Barry. "Similarly, when a brand showcases curvy or older models in clothes that don't quite fit or flatter them, it looks like they're trying to grab a quick headline." Diversity has to be an ongoing commitment to read as "authentic."

And consumers don't like it when older models (or curvier models, or non-white models) are portrayed in ways that set them apart from their model peers. They want the same attention paid to the styling and art direction of all the kinds of models. Skimping on the aesthetics in fact

reverses the positive effects of casting diverse models. The women in my research want models — regardless of size or age — to inspire them with glamour, artistry and creativity. One woman said it best: "What's the point of buying fashion if you're going to look unfashionable?" The underlying message is that fashion needs to sell aspiration, but it is not a standardized model's age, size or race that is aspirational; it is the clothes, styling and creative direction of the shoot.

So women want fashion to give them more, and better, images of beauty and diversity. You don't say!

Barry's research also casts doubt on the age-old theory that people buy things because advertising stokes their insecurities, creating a need that can only be filled by the advertised product. It suggests that advertising can work by inducing in the consumer feelings of affinity for and identification with the people shown in the ad.

When one mature woman saw an older model, she explained: "[The model] does more than make me feel beautiful; she inspires me to go out and get this dress and celebrate my beauty." While some women in my study felt insecure when they saw idealized models, their insecurity didn't translate to purchase intentions as the industry hopes; it actually turned them off the product. As one of the participants summarized: "Ads like this want us to be part of their world, but they have the opposite effect for me. I feel excluded."

Contrary to long-held marketing wisdom, fashion ads don't need to lead women to aspire to an unattainable ideal to sell products. Instead, women will buy fashion when models convey a realistic, attainable image and make them feel confident; they will continue to demand the products to maintain the advertised look and their feelings of empowerment. To unleash this economic potential, brands should cast models who mirror the diversity of their target market: If a brand sells sizes 2 to 14 and the age of their target consumer is 18 to 35, the models should reflect the same size and age ranges.

Of course, this is self-reported data — and we know from other studies of consumer behavior that people can be unreliable when it comes to accurately describing their own motivations. (Who would ever sit across a table and say to a researcher, in front of an audience of other women, "I buy skin cream because the ads make me worry that I need it," even if it is the truth?) And telling a researcher that Ad 1 makes you want to buy the dress more than Ad 2 is a very different activity than walking into a store and ringing up a purchase. But Barry's research does raise some interesting questions for the fashion and advertising industries — not the least of which is why have we coasted so long on the assumption that fashion needs to make women feel bad about themselves to buy shit.

Can Using Different Types of Models Benefit Brands? [Elle Canada]