Study: Hey, Advertising and Marketing Pros! Before You ‘Go Thin,’ Think Again

May 21, 2015

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WACO, Texas (May 19, 2015) – Here’s the skinny: Not all women will buy products because the models in the advertisements are thin, according to a new study of a diverse group of 239 women by a Baylor University marketing professor.

In fact, 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, said James Roberts, Ph.D., The Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.

Roberts co-authored the report, “Does Thin Always Sell? The Moderating Role of Thin Ideal Internalization on Advertising Effectiveness,” with his daughter, Chloe’ 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 women respond to advertising,” the study said, adding that 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, James 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 had to determine which of the women surveyed internalized the “thin ideal.” To accomplish that, each was asked a series of eight questions to determine whether she fell into the low or high internalization category.

“It was our belief that women who ascribed to the ‘thin ideal’ would be more receptive to the thinner models,” James Roberts said.

Following that identification, each woman surveyed was then asked to respond to a series of magazine advertising photos featuring women modeling with purses. The purses were the product 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.

The results?

“For those who did not ascribe to the thin ideal, model size did not play a part in ad effectiveness,” James 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.

On the flip side, women who internalized the “thin ideal” – 30 percent of those surveyed – “were more receptive to thin models compared to average-size models,” according to the study.

James Roberts said this study puts actual numbers to beliefs that have existed for a while, 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.”

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution, characterized as having “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions. Baylor sponsors 19 varsity athletic teams and is a founding member of the Big 12 Conference.

Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business provides a rigorous academic experience, consisting of classroom and hands-on learning, guided by Christian commitment and a global perspective. Recognized nationally for several programs, including Entrepreneurship and Accounting, the school offers 24 undergraduate and 13 graduate areas of study. Visit and follow on Twitter at