New Study Shows That Thin Models Don’t Make Most Women Want to Shop

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No thanks to the models. Photo: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There's a common belief in the fashion industry that replacing size-zero 17-year-olds with bigger, older models will turn people off. Because most consumers who aspire to wear fancy clothing also aspire to look thin and young, so the fantasies go hand-in-hand — right? But new research shows that women are actually much more willing to buy an item that's modeled by someone closer to their own size. The study was done by a modeling agent, Ben Barry, who wanted to explore exactly which kinds of models prompted women to buy things.

Barry writes in Canadian Elle:

My study entailed two phases. In the first phase, I conducted experiments to test women’s purchase intentions when they viewed models who had similar and dissimilar sizes, ages and races to themselves. Each woman was randomly shown two of eight possible ads where the models might have reflected some of their traits, all of their traits or none of their traits. To avoid biasing their opinions, I didn’t reveal the true aims of my study to them. In the second phase, I facilitated focus groups with different women to help identify reasons for particular purchase intentions. I found that Canadian and American women increased purchase intentions for fashion products advertised by models who reflected their own demographics: age, size and — for non-Caucasians — race. 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.

So, in other words, women are more likely to buy a dress when they see it modeled by a woman their own size, race, and age. Since the majority of consumers are not white, a size zero, or between the ages of 15 and 23, then it's safe to say that today's average model isn't doing much to inspire them to shop. Here are some of the statistics that Barry got from his study:

My study found that women increased their purchase intentions by more than 200 percent when the models in the mock ads were their size. In the subgroup over size 6, women increased their purchase intentions by a dramatic 300 percent when they saw curvier models. Conversely, when women saw models who didn’t reflect their size, they decreased their purchase intentions by 60 percent, and women over size 6 dropped their purchase intentions by 76 percent.

My results weren’t limited to the issue of size. Consumers increased their purchase intentions by over 175 percent when they saw models who reflected their age; in particular, women over the age of 35 increased their purchase intentions by 200 percent when they saw older models. When models didn’t reflect their age, consumers decreased their purchase intentions by 64 percent. Furthermore, black consumers were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model.

There is that depressing argument that a majority of luxury consumers are white or Asian, which accounts for the fact that most high-fashion models are white (with Asians being the second most well-represented ethnicity). But that's changing, and advertising — particularly for high-fashion brands — should always stay ahead of the curve. It would behoove some marketing agencies to examine the veracity of Barry's conclusions and research the matter further, particularly since there's lots of shopping dollars at stake.