Plus-size Models in Ads May Just Make Women Feel Bad About Themselves

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Dove's Real Beauty campaign. Photo: Courtesy of Dove

Though the fashion industry keeps saying curves are "in," it may be unwise for many brands to cast plus-size models in ads, according to a new Arizona State University study. Plus-size models are unlikely to sway targeted consumers to buy certain products, since they may just make them feel bad about themselves, researchers say.

“We believe it is unlikely that many brands will gain market share by using heavy models in their ads,” said Naomi Mandel, marketing associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at ASU. “We found that overweight consumers demonstrated lower self-esteem — and therefore probably less enthusiasm about buying products — after exposure to any size models in ads (versus ads with no models). Also, normal-weight consumers experienced lower self-esteem after exposure to moderately heavy models, such as those in Dove soap’s ‘Real Women’ campaign, than after exposure to moderately thin models.”

Researchers asked women with low, normal, and high body-mass indexes how they felt after viewing ads with skinny, normal, and plus-size models. Skinny women with low BMI felt good after looking at ads with all kinds of models, since they identified with the thin ones and felt different from the heavier ones. Heavy women with high BMI felt big in comparison to the idealized skinny models, and identified with the bigger ones. Average-size women felt skinny and good when faced with skinny models, but heavy and bad when faced with bigger models.

Plus-size models could help, the researchers note, in ads for certain things, such as weight-loss supplements and gyms — by making women feel bad enough about themselves that they decide to spend money on those things.

Study: Ads with plus-size models unlikely to work [ASU News]