Study: Beauty Ads Make Women Feel Bad

Discussion
Nov 18, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research found
ads featuring beauty products lower women’s self-esteem.

The authors, three
marketing professors from the Netherlands, conducted four experiments to examine
the different meanings consumers gleaned from advertised versus non-advertised
products across a wide range of items, according to a press release. In one
study, the authors exposed female study participants to either a beauty-enhancing
product (eye shadow, perfume) or a problem-solving product (acne concealer,
deodorant). The product was either embedded in an advertisement (with a shiny
background and a fake brand name) or it was depicted against a neutral white
background.

The researchers — Debra Trampe of the University of Groningen,
Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University, and Frans Siero of the University of
Groningen — particularly probed how the advertisements made the subjects feel
about themselves.

After exposure to the advertised beauty-enhancing products,
consumers were more likely to think about themselves less positively than when
they viewed the same products outside of their advertisements, the authors
found. The same effect did not show up when the items were problem-solving
products.

The authors concluded that ads for beauty-enhancing products seem
to make consumers feel that their current attractiveness levels are different
from what they would ideally be.

"Consumers seem to ‘compare’ themselves to the product images in advertisements,
even though the advertisement does not include a human model," the authors
wrote in the report, according to the statement. "Exposure to beauty-enhancing
products in advertisements lowered consumers’ self-evaluations, in much
the same way as exposure to thin and attractive models in advertisements has
been found to lower self-evaluations."

Discussion Questions: Does it make sense that beauty ads affect the self-esteem
of women in a similar manner to using thin models in advertisements? What would
you expect beauty marketers to do with this information?

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12 Comments on "Study: Beauty Ads Make Women Feel Bad"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

My initial reaction is that beauty ads — just like ads for weight loss, fitness or other self-improvement categories — are meant to trigger a consumer response: “I can look better.” So the conclusions of the survey don’t seem like rocket science; however, there is a difference between aspirational marketing intended to motivate a purchase, and advertising that actually lowers self-esteem. I’m not sure the science is quite as clear-cut on the second point, so mark me down as a skeptic.

David Livingston
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Advertisements for many different kinds of products and services lower self-esteem. That’s yesterdays news. When I see an ad for McDonald’s, it lowers my self-esteem because I think about how I should not be eating there. Then I go eat there. As long as the ads are effective in selling the product, the customer’s self esteem is just a casualty of selling. When Walmart advertises, it probably lowers the self-esteem of every minimum wager that sees the ad. Then they go shop there.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

It would be interesting to see if Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty ads garner the same results. I think it is unfortunate when these types of studies get charged with higher meaning, though. The fact is, advertising plays on aspirations, whether those aspirations are looking younger, being thinner, taking more time off, or even saving more money.

Two words: Mission accomplished!

Joan Treistman
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

We don’t know how the researchers measured the self esteem before and after seeing the advertising. Furthermore, the description of the generic ads depresses me and I haven’t seen the ads. It would probably lower my self esteem just to be subjected to those drab ads.

I agree with the comment that beauty ads are aspirational. We see the enhancers and think “I could look better.” Does that mean I think I look bad? Nah! Hence, my question about how measurement was conducted.

When thin models become aspirational, food disorders follow. When make-up becomes aspirational, well…let’s just say thanks to the inventor of makeup remover.

David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

You will see a continuing trend for beauty ads to feature a more pragmatic approach using actors and models that appear more “everyday” and pragmatic. More consumers can be reached by showing them the “real” possibilities.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

I hope that David Biernbaum is correct. The lovely young woman who is the face of Estee Lauder’s anti-wrinkle campaign is 23. I challenge the company to select a new face that belongs to a woman in her fifties.

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
10 years 5 months ago

While the study is interesting, it does make one wonder how self-esteem is “measured” and how discussion questions were handled. Marketers would do well to consider this work in any case – the trend is to using less glamorous examples and more appropriate models for target audiences. Many of the product lines for mature women are marketed with more realistic models chosen to be aspirational to “look the best you can be.” Sure there is much to be learned here!

Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
10 years 5 months ago

To make matters worse, “women” in ads are digitally retouched: blemishes removed, waistlines trimmed, etc. We are not looking at “women”, we are looking a computer models designed to represent unachievable (and most un-human) perfection. This is unfortunate but hardly news. What it will take is a women-led, grassroots movement to take a strong stance against this type of advertising (and hit the offenders where it hurts: their wallet).

Mark Johnson
Guest
Mark Johnson
10 years 5 months ago

I think there is always going to be an issue with this. The sensitivity is a little over the top. We all want to be young and healthy and look good. Yet how many of us want to get up at 5:00 AM, run five miles, ride the bike for 45 mins, etc., or work out during your lunch break? This is an issue we have in the U.S. America is overweight, lazy, indolent. People want to look good, yet do not want to work at it. It is amazing just returning from London how “big” our country is. I do not think you should feel bad about being overweight and if you are comparing yourself to a size 2 when you are a size 22 you may have other issues.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

“…ads for beauty-enhancing products seem to make consumers feel that their current attractiveness levels are different from what they would ideally be.”

DUH! The whole point of an ad is to make someone think “if and only if I use that I’ll be attractive/smart/clean…whatever” so of course they have that effect. (Will the next “study” tell us that water makes things wet? Of particular use in the Netherlands, I should think.)

As for the comparison to (overly) thin models, IIRC, the complaint there was that the ideal was actually unhealthy: I’m not sure that’s the complaint here, or that there is any complaint at all…yet.

Kai Clarke
Guest
10 years 5 months ago

Marketing is about managing expectations and product positioning. This snapshot of beauty ads is no different than the ads for cars, beer, blue jeans, etc. Each promises to improve ourselves when we use it and hint at what we are like without it. With today’s diet frenzy and prescription drugs on TV, we see this every day. This is nothing new and has been the mainstay of product advertising for years.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
10 years 5 months ago

Allow me to be the second to comment “Duh!” in this discussion. The test ads “seem to make consumers feel that their current attractiveness levels are different from what they would ideally be?” (Question mark added.) Isn’t that the well-acknowledged and generally understood purpose of beauty-enhancing products and their ads?

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