Can using different types of models benefit brands?

Fashion companies could be missing out on the bottom line when they use only one kind of model.

May 11, 2012
Ben Barry
Ingrid Baars
Can using different types of models be beneficial to companies?

When I first explained the topic of my doctoral thesis to my academic colleagues at Cambridge University, I was met with puzzled looks. “Models in advertising?” one asked. “You mean the economic model of advertising?” another questioned. I attempted to clarify: “I’m studying models in advertising—the women in the advertisements— and particularly in fashion advertisements,” I said.

Their confusion and curiosity weren’t unexpected. Although the impact of models on body image has been studied, very little research has been done on how models—depending on their size, age and race—influence purchasing decisions. Instead, marketers rely on long-established industry norms to guide their casting decisions. I wanted to challenge those norms to see if there was a business case to support a more diversified approach.

My research, which was funded by the Ogilvy Foundation, took me to cities across Canada and the United States, where I surveyed and facilitated focus groups with more than 2,500 women. They ranged in age from 14 to 65 and in dress size from 0 to 18, and they reflected a range of ethnicities. I recorded their responses to mock fashion ads—which I created for my study—that featured models who varied in size, age and race but all wore the same Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. Save for the models, the ads were identical. My findings were surprisingly intuitive and yet revolutionary within the fashion industry. I’ll get to the numbers in a moment. First, it’s important to understand what misguided theories—rather than facts—are behind the casting decisions companies make for their marketing campaigns.

The general assumption that models are merely “clothes hangers” is rather pervasive in the multi-billion-dollar fashion industry, but they play a much more influential role: They are the bridge between the consumer and the brand. They not only demonstrate how clothes fit and flatter the human body but also convey a brand’s image and identity. Most important, they breathe movement and vitality into clothes—transforming static garments into three-dimensional creations.

Yet, in spite of this, companies seldom cast models who reflect their markets. The typical model is size 2, whereas the average woman is size 14. Most models are between the ages of 15 and 24, yet there are more Canadians between 40 and 49 or 50 and 64. Only 10 percent of models in North American fashion ads are non-Caucasian, yet 16 percent of the Canadian population is non-Caucasian—and that increases to 40 percent for Toronto and Vancouver.

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.”

Keep reading to discover how broadening the perception of beauty could benefit businesses on the next page...


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