UPDATE: This study has been retracted by the authors.
Announcing that neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer had been listed as one of Salon's sexiest men of 2010, psychologist and uber-blogger Vaughan Bell joked that an aftershave would soon follow. Vaughan was referring, of course, to the widespread tendency for marketeers to use beautiful people to promote products. The rationale of the tactic is obvious. By pairing a product with an attractive model, hopefully people will come to find the product attractive too. A new study by Debra Trampe and colleagues tests the limits of this assumption, finding that attractive models do usually increase a product's appeal, except when consumers think hard about the advert and physical beauty is irrelevant to the product.
One hundred and fifty-nine female participants looked at one of four versions of an advertising poster and then rated the product being advertised. The ad was either for a diet product or a deodorant and it either featured a standard female model or that same model but with a digitally enhanced body made to look extra lean and attractive. Another twist was that half the participants were encouraged to think hard about the ad, by telling them they'd have to write a review of the product, and that they were one of a only small number of people involved in judging the ad. By contrast, the other half of the participants were encouraged not to think too hard about the ad, but to judge it on first impressions.
For the participants who didn't think much, the presence of a more attractive model led them to rate both products more positively. However, for those participants who thought harder about the ad, the more attractive model only led to higher ratings for the diet product, not the deodorant. This was taken as evidence that when people think about adverts, an attractive model is only beneficial when beauty is relevant to the product being advertised.
A second study backed up this finding using two products that more clearly differed in their relevance to beauty - a shampoo brand and a home computer. Similar to the first study, for participants who judged on first impressions, the presence of an attractive model (versus no model) led to higher ratings for both products. By contrast, for participants who reflected more deeply on the ad, the presence of an attractive model was only effective for the beauty-relevant product. In fact, for these more engaged participants, the attractive model led to marginally lower ratings for the home computer.
'An attractiveness-relevant product is best paired with an attractive model, rather than an average-looking model or no model,' the researchers said. 'For products less relevant for attractiveness, however, an attractive model appears to be as effective as an average-looking model, or no model.'
Trampe's team also acknowledged that the presence of a beautiful (or unrealistically thin) model can affect the way customers feel about themselves (often adversely), not just how they feel about the product - future research is needed to find out how these responses interact, they said.
Trampe, D., Stapel, D., Siero, F., and Mulder, H. (2010). Beauty as a tool: The effect of model attractiveness, product relevance, and elaboration likelihood on advertising effectiveness. Psychology and Marketing, 27 (12), 1101-1121 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20375