Marti Barletta: What's the Skinny on Women in Advertising?

It's Up to Marketers to Change the Beauty Norm

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Marti Barletta
Marti Barletta
A recent Villanova University study reported that ads featuring lean models made women feel worse about themselves, but resulted in more favorable ratings for the brands advertised. Nonetheless, as of this writing, two out of three respondents to the Ad Age online poll asking, "Should U.S. marketers consider banning the use of super-skinny models in ad campaigns?" say yes, ban them. Bravo! Maybe we really have come a long way, baby.

It should come as no surprise that women prefer to see super-slim models in ads. Ever since the craze began with Twiggy in the 1960s, the fashion industry and our celebrity culture have been locked into this single skinny archetype -- large-eyed, child-like and underdeveloped. And when all the "beautiful people" of the female persuasion for the last forty years have looked the same, it's no wonder that all of us, men and women alike, have been imprinted with this "thin is in" imagery.

It hasn't always been this way. From Rubens to Renoir, from Sarah Bernhardt to the Breck Girls and Marilyn Monroe, the "ideal" has changed from buxom to bony and back again. Every culture's idea of "sexy" is created and carried by its art and communications media. Paintings, plays, posters and cinema have both defined and reflected each generation's "eye of the beholder."

How things have changed
Since the 1960s, two things have changed that should be finding their way into today's aesthetic. First, we have become a more globally integrated society. TV and the internet have brought us images of women from around the world, which have opened our eyes to the many shapes and faces of female beauty in other cultures. Second, we have a better understanding of what "healthy" is -- and isn't. Now we're aware of the toll in death-inducing eating disorders and destructive self-hate that a skinny standard imposes on millions of girls and women throughout the world, throughout their lives.

Maybe we're ready for Twiggy to grow up. Ironically, even Twiggy has lashed out at size zero actresses: "Their concave chests and bony arms are terrifying. It's scary to think that normal teenagers are tempted to copy them. I'd love there to be more larger models, but it's just not going to happen."

Why not? When will the pendulum swing to something new? And why can't we give it a little push?

Look at it this way: Today's marketers are adopting and promoting "corporate responsibility" as a marketing mantra, including sustainable manufacturing practices, recyclable packaging, fair-trade buying and humane factory-labor policies.

Another way to 'do good'
To the many marketers seeking to do well by doing good, consider this: Committing your communications to a healthy standard of womanly beauty is another such opportunity. Like your other corporate responsibility undertakings, it's not cheap and it's not easy; there are changeover costs and a learning curve. Yet time and again, whether their initial impulse to do the right thing is marketing-driven, values-driven or to differentiate the brand, companies are learning that what's good for people is good for business, creating a virtuous circle that spirals up on both counts.

Research shows that at first, women will be surprised to see "the new normal" in your advertising. They're not used to it, and it will take us all a moment to acclimate. But that's no different than introducing any new look. Come on -- except for the fascionistas among us, who loved ankle pants the first time we saw them? Didn't they just look wrong? What about ultra-pointy-toed shoes? Bra-baring shirts? Pierced navels, noses, lips and eyebrows? The fact of the matter is that somewhere, the style setters (whoever they are) cast about constantly for a way to shock the eye and shake up our visual vocabulary. So why don't they -- why don't we -- try a new language of loveliness based on, oh, I don't know -- real women?
Marti Barletta is a recognized thought leader on marketing to women and author of "PrimeTime Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds and Business of Boomer Big Spenders." She is also author of "Marketing to Women," CEO of The TrendSight Group, a think tank specializing in marketing to women, and a founding member of the Women Gurus Network.

Radical, I know. But once the look catches on, it can win you big points with the people who spend 80% of the consumer dollars in this country: women.

Look at Dove and the response to its global Campaign for Real Beauty. What about Nordstrom, which for years has integrated women of color, "women of size" and "women of a certain age" into the same catalog layouts as conventional models? These are companies that know a thing or three about women.

So the next time you cast a commercial, throw yourself a few curves. Bring in some actresses who look like Jennifer Tilly, Queen Latifah, Bonnie Hunt and Helen Mirren. Warn the wardrobe mistress you're going to need some size 12s on the rack. And put some cheese and crackers in the dressing room, alongside the celery and carrot sticks.
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