Brand anorexia

[13 August 2008]

By Rob Horning

Advertising blog AdFreak passes along this finding: “Jeremy Kees of Villanova University has published a study that suggests that seeing skinny women in ads makes women feel worse about their personal body image but better about the brands advertised.” The blog poster, Rebecca Cullers, asks of her ad-industry peers: “assuming you think the study’s findings are correct, would you use anorexics in your ads if testing showed it sold the product better?” I think anyone who has seen a fashion magazine knows the answer to that question.

The typo-ridden press release for the study details its method, which seems somewhat absurd, almost demeaning.

The controlled study of 194 women ages 18-24 on two college campuses, finds that after seeing an ad featuring a thin model, young women are twice as likely to decline to eat a cookie or chose a low fat alternative.

It reminds me of a scene in a fifth-season episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Todd Barry, as one of the writers, tries in a patronizing voice to force a swimsuit model to eat a cookie. “Come on, you want a cookie. Just one cookie.”

The account of this research can’t help but trivialize women:  “All women (high and low self monitors) were more likely to choose reduced fat Oreos or opt for no cookie. Compared with those who saw advertisements without models, the women exposed to the models were nearly 4 times as likely to decline a cookie and 42% more likely to choose reduced fat cookies.” It’s hard to imagine research revolving around Oreo consumption being conducted on men. But then our culture is much less likely to consider a man’s weight an index to his character or social relevance.

But the core finding here is pretty dismaying, as it suggests not only that destructive fantasies of what weight is appropriate for women have taken a firm hold, but also something that we should all probably take for granted, namely that marketing can often become more effective precisely by making us feel worse about ourselves. After seeing ads, we don’t necessarily have to feel good in order to feel good about the brand. The study’s findings also seem to suggest that brands take on the exclusionary “glamour” associated with emaciated models whose figures are impossible for the ad’s target audience to achieve.

This sort of phenomenon isn’t limited to fashion, though. One of the inegalitarian aspects of ads is that they elevate expectations of what is a “normal” standard of living across the board, projecting a fictional classless society in which everyone can indulge in luxury without pain of privation. We can all participate in this fantasy thanks to the media, but we don’t all experience the same amount of harsh cognitive dissonance upon realizing just how far we are from actually achieving those standards. Our exclusion from the reality doesn’t undermine the fantasy, though we probably would be better off hewing to a sour-grapes reaction to the unattainable things that marketing misleadingly promises. Instead we react to the exclusion by imagining what was promised was even better than we might have thought initially. And if we actually achieve what seemed impossible, acquire the goods that signify the better standard of living that once excluded us, of course we will be disappointed in it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/brand-anorexia/