Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ads and Fantasies: Why Do We Buy?

Elle Canada published an article by Ben Barry discussing research on how the physical appearance of models affects women's desire to buy the products.

The findings were interesting (and the whole article is an in-depth look that's worth reading, so you should go check it out):
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.
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.
That makes sense to me.

When I buy products, I want to be able to imagine them looking good on me. I want to be able to picture myself in them, so that means that if I only see size-2 eighteen year olds wearing it, I can't really project myself into that space. In fact, when I see nothing but people who do not look like me in advertisements, the message that I receive is that this product is not for me. I don't want to try to look younger than I am (I'm happy with my age) and I don't want to try to squeeze into clothes too small for me, either (for the most part, I'm also happy with my body).

But this logic is against the industry's standard, which is to portray models as "clothes hangers" that don't "distract" from the garment. What it really comes down to is the advertising theory that making consumers feel bad about themselves will prompt them to purchase in order to feel better. As Barry explains in the article:
In the business community, the general consensus is that there is a discrepancy between marketing and the market because fashion advertising fuels consumer demand by creating a craving that can’t be satisfied. In other words, marketers hire models to sell an image that most women can aspire to but never achieve. As Karl Lagerfeld explained in a recent interview on CNN: “Unreachable beauty is a reminder to make an effort. But if you see something, and you can reach what you see, then you do not have to make an effort anymore.”
How would you have ever known how much whiter your teeth needed to be if Crest hadn't told you?
They did you a favor.
There are entire product lines that wouldn't exist if the industry hadn't first materialized a "problem" for consumers to "fix," but surely this can't be the only way to approach selling things. And--as I get older--this seems much less the way to get me to buy things.

Sure, as a teen and young adult, I purchased a lot of products in the hopes that they would "fix" some glaring problem. I wanted the hair straightener serum because my wavy hair was never in style and I needed this particular brand of jeans because it was the "right" brand to make the statement I was trying to make about my personality. Playing on our insecurities can be a very lucrative strategy.

But what if playing to our securities can be a lucrative strategy, too? As I've gotten older, I've stopped caring so much about trying to "fix" my "flaws." That's not to say that I don't have any vanities or that I don't purchase products to improve my appearance. But I'm much more on board with playing up the parts of my appearance that I feel good about. I'll buy this hair product because it helps me shape my wavy hair. I'll buy this dress because I think it flatters the way my body actually looks, not because I'm trying to hide behind it.

I'm not saying that shaming people into changing their bodies isn't an effective advertising strategy; it clearly is. But emotional appeals work both ways, and I think that making people feel good about how they look and about people who look like them is an effective way, too. And you get those bonus points of working towards a more positive and equitable portrayal of the world, too. A win-win.


What do you think? What motivates you to buy? Are you more inclined to buy a product because it points out a flaw you can fix or because it highlights an attribute you feel confident in? Does your answer vary for different types of products?

To see more on the natural model movement, check out Healthy is the New Skinny, which has a mission statement of bringing "health, joy, and responsibility to the beauty and the fashion industries." Part of their  company includes a natural model agency that celebrates a myriad of looks and body types.


  1. I agree, but the problem with capitalism is that selling the same things every year is not enough, every year there has to be "growth" which means inventing problems that need to be addressed - hence why so many adult "problems" are now being moved onto children (the need for bras, make-up etc), why toys for "children" are becoming ever more toys for "boys" and toys for "girls", and why marketers are trying to come up with more ways to make us feel bad about ourselves. I'm not sure that playing to people's strengths would allow that growth.

  2. I definitely agree with you that success=growth is the cause of this hyper-marketing (and the downfall of many great small businesses, but I digress). But does that mean our strengths are
    Iimited while our insecurities are endless? It may be true, but that's awfully an awfully depressing reflection of our collective psyche.

  3. I would be much more likely to buy clothing if it was marketed as curve-friendly and helped me celebrate things about my body that will never change (even if/when I start working out more). I'm glad I don't have many ads in my life (we don't have cable tv). It helps me stay sane.