The use of plus-size or ‘realistic’ models in advertising, such as the women seen in the recent Australian Target catalogue or Dove commercials, are being linked to poor health choices and rising obesity rates among consumers.
According to a study out of Simon Fraser University in Canada, and published in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, advertising campaigns that lean towards using ‘plus-size’ models are having a “detrimental” effect on the public’s lifestyle and eating behavior.
Speaking to news.com.au, lead author and associate professor of Marketing at California State University, Dr Lily Lin said the reason for the poor health choices are because of the use of reassuring slogans such as ‘real’ and ‘normal’ next to ‘plus-size’ models.
“We were noticing more and more of these types of ads being used in the marketplace. At the same time, we continued to hear about the rising rate of overweight and obese people in much of the western world,” Lin said.
“In one of the experiments, participants were given 3 advertisements. One ad had a plus-size model with an accepting slogan, one was just an image of a plus size model and the third had no model at all.
“Participants filled out questions about their evaluation of each ad, including how they felt about exercise and food choices based on what they saw in the advertisement. The participants were required to select food items in response to each variant of the ad, and when we summed up the number of foods selected by the groups, the women who saw the ad with the ‘normal’ or ‘real’ body slogans made higher calorie and poorer exercise choices.”
The study had a total of 1,032 participants across the five studies that were conducted for the research. The participants were randomly assigned to different conditions in each of the studies, so there was no difference in BMI between the different conditions. Dr Lin said that the participants’ own BMIs also did not have significant effects on the results.
Titled ‘The Dove Effect: Usage of Acceptance Cues for Larger Body Types Increases Unhealthy Behaviors,” Dr Lin said the instigator for conducting the study stemmed from an increase in ‘realistic’ models in advertising campaigns, paired with ‘acceptance’ or ‘reassuring’ slogans, such as the Dove ad using the term ‘real,’
“We already knew that ads that stigmatized larger bodies can be harmful, but were somewhat surprised to see that people’s motivation decreased further when they saw the acceptance ads.
American Eagle #aeriereal campaign was also mentioned as, with Dr Lin advising that advertisers need to be careful about “what they are communicating to consumers”.
“Based on this work, we believe that statements that place a value judgment on any body type could have implications for consumers,” she said.
Speaking to news.com.au, Australian ‘plus-size’ model Laura Wells said despite not agreeing with all results from the study, she understood the problem around the use of words such as ‘real’ or ‘normal’ in advertising.
“I understand the problem when using the world ‘real’ and ‘normal’ on images, regardless of the models size,” Laura said.
“Everyone is real. Normal comes with what you choose is normal, so I understand that part of the study.
“My job and title is plus size. I’m 23 BMI and size 14. To identify a ‘plus-size’ model as encouraging obesity is where I don’t agree with the study.
“Throughout my career, the amount of messages I receive from people who have used images of me to lead a healthier life, and love their body. I’ve seen people accept who they are and be the best they can,” she said.
— Dove (@Dove) October 30, 2014
“I encourage people to drop those terms, like ‘real’ or ‘curves,’ because for me everyone is different and that’s the beauty of the world. We don’t and can’t all look the same,” she said.
In terms of the participants who took part in the study, Laura questioned what their usual food and lifestyle choices were outside the focus group.
“My body, being a size 14, is not something people look at and think they don’t want to work out.
“I tend to think about the background of the people who took the study and what their choices would normally be,” she said.
“We definitely need diversity in the industry. I hate being called a ‘real woman’ because everyone is real.
“Being labelled something like that shouldn’t exist. Everyone is real and normal. The part of the study that talked about what people are ‘choosing’ to eat, it comes down to peoples perception of themselves.”
Catherine McGill, General Manager of Vivien’s Model Management, was surprised by the study, saying the use of a ‘real’ sized women had been a welcome change to the industry over the past few years.
“I find it very pleasing when advertisers use different size shapes,” Mrs McGill told news.com.au.
“I prefer to see a retailer or advertiser, like Target or Myer, use a range of models. Earlier this year, The Upside activewear did the same thing and I think that’s really good. Either extreme isn’t a good thing, but a range of normal body shapes is representative of the community,” she continued.
“The use of the words ‘normal’ or ‘real’ is accurate and factual. So that’s what surprises me, and is what I find hard to understand a link between the two [bad health trends and accepting slogans]. I think there may be other factors that play in to it.
“Skinny models encourage anorexia, and now using ‘real’ and ‘normal’ models encourage obesity. You can’t win,” she said
In response to the study, Australia’s The Butterfly Foundation said the focus needs to be shifted away from weight, and refocused on health and physical well being.
“At a time when eating disorders are affecting close to one million Australians, The Butterfly Foundation feels there needs to be a strong focus on health, not weight and that equal consideration should be given to the social, emotional and physical aspects of health,” the foundation’s CEO, Christine Morgan told news.com.au.
“Our environment is currently filled with subconscious messages about idealized beauty, body shape and size. People of all ages are bombarded with images that often promote unrealistic, unobtainable and highly stylized appearance ideals which have been fabricated by stylists and digital manipulation and cannot be achieved in real life.
“Those who feel they don’t measure up in comparison to these cultural ideals can experience intense body dissatisfaction which is damaging to their psychological and physical wellbeing. “These high levels of body dissatisfaction and weight concerns are also leading to an increasing number of men and women engaging in disordered eating behaviors,” she said.
“From the study, our recommendation is that advertisers and marketers should use a range of body types and sizes in their campaigns,” Dr Lin said.
“Using a variety of sizes, that doesn’t place value or judgment on a certain body type means people won’t have their attention and focus on a particular body size.”