CAMBRIDGE, UK: For nearly eight decades advertisers and their agencies have, it seems, been barking up the wrong tree in their approach to female consumers in the beauty and fashion sectors.
Way back in the 1930s the legendary salesman and motivational speaker Elmer Wheeler counselled sales people [yes, that's you too, chief marketing officers and agency creatives] that they should "sell the sizzle and not the steak".
And lo! it came to pass that the aforesaid innocents obeyed the tablet handed down from Mount Ballyhoo by a hustler whose skill lay in selling motivational books by the million to aspirational wannabes.
Which may (or may not) be the reason why the ad world still relies on young, white and near-emaciated models to peddle fashion and beauty brands.
But they are wrong! Or so accuses Ben Barry, a senior researcher at Cambridge University's Judge Business School who is currently surveying a 2,000-strong sample of women in the UK, US, China, India, Canada, Brazil, Kenya and Jordan to establish their attitudes and reactions to such advertising.
The survey, probably the first such global probe into female consumers' attitudes, found that women respond more favourably to a brand if the models it uses reflect their own identities.
But hiring a few fuller-figured models is not likely to do the trick, argues Barry. "In general, people have a more favourable reaction to brands that show models who represent people's age, size and background.
"It's not necessarily enough to show one component which is similar – people really wanted to see someone who represents them in all three factors."
But the door on which Barry is pushing is ajar – if only by a couple of millimetres.
In recent years a similar approach has been used by a sprinkling of brands, notably Unilever'sDove skincare range, which made a positive virtue of featuring older and larger models in its award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty.
A number of unidentified ad agencies are participating in the ongoing study by producing a number of realistic print-ad treatments for consumer and luxury goods.
Half were made using what the study termed "traditionally attractive models" (white, 16-24 age group, and around US size zero / UK size four) while the remainder depicted "realistically attractive models" of a range of ages, races and shapes.
There was no ambiguity about the findings: Apart from women aged under 25 (less likely to object to an abundance of young, white, ultra-slim models) and Chinese consumers (who actively preferred them), most of those surveyed felt positive towards the brands that used the more diverse models.
Barry is not the first to examine the issue of self-identification with [or alienation from] advertising symbols.
In a handful of earlier investigations mainly by psychologists, the implications were that the use of excessively slim models could create a bad impression with female consumers.
Barry's work, however, goes further. In addition to examining the subject from a business and marketing viewpoint, it also includes the factors of race and age – the latter being an especially potent bottom-line issue given the relatively high spending power of older women.
He quotes the reaction of one fifty-plus participant to a sample ad for a luxury product using a very youthful model: "It's a slap in the face to show this young woman because she'd never have the money to shop there whereas I do."
Concludes Barry: The women wanted models who looked like they were part of the fashion industry but also looked like them [WARC's italics].
"[Such models] made them feel that they, too, were included in the industry and were considered beautiful. It's not just about taking a plain mugshot of a real woman. If you're a big fashion retai
Data sourced from Guardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff