Brands that promote apparel items like lingerie and swimwear on Instagram may want to consider using plus-sized models and not retouching images, according to a study in the Journal of Advertising Research (JAR).

Heather Shoenberger (Pennsylvania State University), Eunjin (Anna) Kim (University of Southern California) and Erika K. Johnson (East Carolina University) discussed this subject in #BeingReal about Instagram ad models: The effects of perceived authenticity – how image modification of female body size alters advertising attitude and buying intention.

A panel of over 200 women – coming in at an average age of nearly 30 years old, with just over 46% possessing a college degree – took part in the study, which began with scrolling through images on an Instagram feed.

Images from a real lingerie and intimates brand were used in the research, although the name of the manufacturer was replaced with that of a fictional company to “avoid known brand confounds”.

The pictures used in the research contained a mix of plus-sized models and thin models. And some images were manipulated by the researchers conducting the study to mask “flaws” like tattoos and stretchmarks.

Participants were asked questions “about what items they would consider buying that the models in the images they saw had been wearing and about their attitude toward the (fake) ads in the posts they had viewed”.

Respondents were also asked how “authentic” they believed posts with the images of different models to be, and to say what they thought the research’s objective might be (with none of its hypotheses being identified by the sample).

And their study reported that “attitude toward the advertisement and intent to purchase items the models wore in the advertisements were highest when a plus-size, not digitally enhanced model was used”.

These results were described by the authors as “exciting” because “when attractiveness is held constant, plus-size, not digitally enhanced models can lead to effective advertising efforts and purchase intentions”.

When it came to evaluations of thin models, the results were less significant, perhaps because these models “did not have cellulite and were very thin to begin with”, meaning the retouching process may not have been as perceptible.

“Certainly, practitioners can begin to incorporate a more diverse set of models in their advertising and expect success in the intimates and swimwear category online,” the study’s authors proposed.

“It is possible not only that the plus-size, not digitally enhanced models looked realistic but also that the realism allowed participants to visualize what the clothing items might look like on their own bodies.

“This visualization might have driven intent to purchase; ordering clothing online is often challenging because consumers cannot try items on before buying.”

Sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff