The Nemcova Bikini Effect

31 07 2008

If you’re a woman, new research says the picture at right will make you feel worse about yourself.

But it may also make you love my blog.

An Ad Age article cites a study by business professors at Villanova University and the College of New Jersey, inspired by Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” shows that ads featuring thin models made women feel worse about themselves but better about the brands featured.

I’ve decided to call this phenomenon “The Nemcova Bikini Effect”, after the noted Czech market research executive/swimsuit model Petra Nemcova.

On a simplistic level, it’s easy to say that marketers are harnessing self-loathing as a way to drive sales.

I think a more nuanced answer is that it’s in our DNA to seek status and advantage as a means to survival.

Good looks are a ~$160 billion a year global industry, encompassing make up, skin and hair care, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health club and diet pills. We want brands that promise to make us look better than we actually do. Some good facts can be found here. (I love linking to a guy whose blog proudly says “Born in Nepal”. The world really is shrinking, and in a good way.)

Some highlights of the study:

  • Women in a sample of 194 college students aged 18-24 expressed more negative feelings about their sexual attractiveness, weight and physical condition after seeing thin models than before.
  • Despite the negative effect on their body image, women preferred ads showing thin models and said they were more likely to buy products featured in those ads than in ones showing “regular-size models.
  • “The really interesting result we’re seeing across multiple studies is that these thin models make women feel bad, but they like it,” said Jeremy Kees, a business professor at Villanova.

Unilever’s Campaign For Real Beauty continues. But, you have to wonder: when the campaign runs out of steam, will they turn to the Nemcova Bikini Effect to turn the business back around?

What would you do?




2 responses

31 07 2008
Mike Troiano

Depends on the brand, old friend. The Dove “BrandPrint” in the language of Ogilvy’s Brand Stewardship process is about “a relationship between women.” About all the new stuff has in common with the old “woman on horseback” stuff is that it’s a woman talking with other women frankly, as a friend. That’s why “real beauty” works, they would say, and why it wouldn’t work from something more aspirational, like Mac or Clinique.

Point is there are nuances in the way Good Looks brands create emotional value, and the NBE may apply unevenly across them.

31 07 2008

Thanks for the comment, Mike. I agree with the “BrandPrint” and believe it’s a long-term way to differentiate Dove. For me, the question is: if the brand hits a rough patch and the CMO presses a cold steel pistol barrel to the brand manager’s forehead, will the brand manager have the guts to do the right thing?

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