Thin doesn't always sell

Not all women will buy products because the models in the advertisements are thin, according to a study of a diverse group of 239 women by a Baylor University marketing professor.

James Roberts, PhD, said marketers and advertisers who default to the "thin ideal"--the belief that thinner is better--could be alienating up to 70 percent of their audience.

Roberts, who is The Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business, co-authored the report, "Does Thin Always Sell? The Moderating Role of Thin Ideal Internalization on Advertising Effectiveness," with his daughter, Chloé Roberts, a freshman at the University of Alabama. The study is published by the Atlantic Marketing Journal.

The current "thin sells" fixation is a gross oversimplification of how many women respond to advertising, the study said. Previous research has shown that only 5 percent of women could possibly achieve the body size depicted in typical advertisements.

Advertisers tend to default to this ideal without knowing for sure if other options are viable, Roberts said.

"Advertisers need to do a bit more research with their target market," he said. "They need to find out what these women are thinking as related to body size."

To conduct the study, the researchers asked a series of questions to determine which of the women surveyed internalized the "thin ideal."

"It was our belief that women who ascribed to the 'thin ideal' would be more receptive to the thinner models," Roberts said.

Following that identification, each woman was then asked to respond to a series of magazine advertising photos featuring women with purses for sale. Half of the photos were altered to increase the body sizes of the models. Attitudes toward the ad and brand were both measured, as was the likelihood of purchasing the product.

"For those who did not ascribe to the 'thin ideal,' model size did not play a part in ad effectiveness," Roberts said.

That number was significant, he said. Of those surveyed, 25 percent disagreed with the "thin ideal" and 45 percent did not fully ascribe to it. Conversely, women who internalized the "thin ideal"--30 percent of those surveyed--"were more receptive to thin models," according to the study.

Roberts said this study puts actual numbers to existing beliefs, but he said the research findings should be enough to give advertisers pause before they cast their next models.

"We don't want to oversimplify," he said. "We need to look at the target market, and we also have to look at the product category. For some product categories, 'thin' is probably going to do better. For others, it very well may be that an average-size model may sell better than a thin model. It just may be a good business decision."