Last week the internet was buzzing about a new study from marketing researchers at Simon Fraser University. The news articles stated that the research suggests that use of plus-size models in advertising may lead to obesity.
Of course, I had to take a look at the actual research myself. In a pilot study, the researchers compared attitudes of acceptance of overweight and obesity after 168 female participants were exposed to images of either an overweight mannequin, a thin mannequin, or no mannequin at all. They were then asked to respond to the following statements:
“feel being obese or overweight is normal”, that “it is ok to be obese or overweight”, and that “it is perfectly fine to be obese or overweight these days” (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree).
The researchers found that those in the overweight mannequin condition were more likely to state that being overweight or obese was socially acceptable than those in the thin or control conditions.
I’d just like to take a moment to mention that many researchers are opposed to the use of “agree-disagree” scales as they tend to create positive bias and may also introduce forms of measurement error. The use of such a scale in this research could conceivably have affected the results. I also find it interesting that even though the results were statistically significant, they weren’t hugely different for each condition. The average response for the overweight condition was 3.15 + 1.51, in the thin condition 2.64 + 1.26, and in the control 2.57 + 1.18. While the participants in the overweight condition did exhibit, on average, a more positive opinion of overweight and obesity, they were still leaning toward disagreement with the statements, assuming that 4 was a neutral response on this scale. Yes, they reported overweight to be more socially acceptable but all conditions actually rated it as not socially desirable.
A second study used 80 female undergraduate students. They were each given a cup containing 7 chocolates at the start of the study and were told that these were leftover from a different study. Participants were then shown an ad for a clothing store showing an overweight model with the caption “For Normal Women” (in the acceptance condition), “For Plus Size Women” (in the plus size condition), and “For Women” (in the control condition). The control condition did not show an image of a model. After this, they did a number of unrelated experiments to throw them off the scent of the true nature of the research. Participants in the acceptance condition consumed more chocolates (on average 4.59) than the participants in the plus size (3.05) and control (2.03) conditions. This was taken to show that when larger body types are shown to be more acceptable that women take this as licence to eat more junk food. Certainly an interesting result. I’d be interested to see how it translated to the real world though in which the vast majority of marketing images are still trying to sell us on the notion that thin is the most desirable body type.
Yet another study was a slight riff on the first study. This time both male and female students were recruited (n = 162). The caption on the model was removed entirely in the control condition and read “For Real Women” in the acceptance condition. After viewing the ad, participants were asked to construct their “ideal meal” from a list of 15 food items (with accompanying calorie counts). Calorie counts of the meals in the acceptance condition were significantly higher (622.78 on average) than the meals in the plus size condition (448.21) and the control condition (503.36). Participants were then asked to indicate how much they “want to be in better shape” (-3 = not at all, +3 = very much). Those in the acceptance condition expressed less motivation to be in better shape (1.53 average) than those in the plus size and control conditions (2.02, 2.16 respectively). Again, I’d like to point out that this suggests that most subjects, irrespective of treatment condition, indicated a desire to be in better shape. I also struggle with this question as we don’t know what shape the participants were in to begin with. Indicating that one doesn’t wish to be in better shape may just mean that they’re already in great shape rather than that they are content with being out of shape. There’s also a lack of clarity regarding what “in shape” means. To some people it may be all about appearance, to others it may be more about physical capabilities.
There are more studies. Dear lord. Why must researchers jam-pack so many studies into one article?? Because I want to get off my butt and go for a run because I want to stay fit I’m going to go through these ones as quickly as possible…
Study 3 compared the desire to workout among participants who were either exposed to a fat-shaming ad for a gym with either a thin or overweight model, or a body acceptance ad with either a thin or an overweight model. Overall, they found that those exposed to the acceptance ad showed lower levels of motivation.
Study 4 exposed participants to the same ads as were used in study 3 and then asked them to allocate tax dollars to support a number of social programs, including “preventing overweight and obesity”. Those in the acceptance condition allocated significantly smaller percentages of their funds (8.94%) to preventing overweight and obesity than the stigma and control conditions (15.65%, 15.43%) did.
The researchers conclude that marketers should avoid using either overly thin or overly large models in advertisments. They also state that accepting larger models results in more negative consequences than stigmatizing those body types. A very dangerous statement, in my opinion. As their research only looked at specific parameters under artificial circumstances. Suggesting that fat-shaming is less harmful than promoting acceptance of all body types is premature at best. I think that a better conclusion would be that advertising should be inclusive of all body types to avoid glorifying any one aesthetic or vilifying another. Healthy bodies can look very different from one another. Personally, I like the trend that some advertisers are taking toward focussing more on what your body can do than how it looks.