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A new study finds that average-sized models are rated roughly as attractive as ones with thinner frames.

Advertising is often aspirational: showing us the life we want, not necessarily the life (or looks) that we have. So, despite the outcry over unhealthy body images in ads, is it really a good idea for brands to ditch the skinny models and portray real women?

A new study argues that it is. Researchers from the University of Kent in Britain and Canada's Brock University have examined young women's perceptions of different-sized models in fashion ads, and found that average-sized models were rated roughly as attractive as the conventional "size-zero" models – and in some cases, they were rated more attractive.

That is potentially an important message for marketers, who may lean on extremely thin body types in advertising out of a desire to portray their products in the most attractive light.

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But that long-standing aesthetic has come under fire. Last year, lingerie brand La Perla was heavily criticized for a window display in New York that used a mannequin sculpted to look so emaciated that its design included an outline of a ribcage poking through the skin. Fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren have caught heat for digitally retouching photos of already thin models to such an extent that their heads appear larger than their torsos. When retailers began selling size zero clothing, some criticized it as pressure for women to be impossibly tiny. Last year, J. Crew unveiled a new size: 000.

"The public is not happy with what advertisers are doing," said Xuemei Bian, senior lecturer in marketing at the Kent Business School, and lead author of the new study. "Advertising agencies and big brands are under the spotlight. … If they are not doing something even when they're under so much pressure, it may be because they're concerned about their revenue."

The study, which will be published in the European Journal of Marketing, explored the question of whether there is a business case for sticking with the status quo. In one experiment, 260 women aged 18 to 25 were asked to look at advertising and give their opinions. Participants were given a picture of a model with either a well-established brand name (Gucci) or a made-up brand (Comali) and the picture showed either a real model in a runway show, or the same image digitally altered to represent an average size (size 10). They were then asked to rate how attractive the model was.

Over all, the ratings of the two models did not differ greatly for Gucci; but when evaluating a new brand, the participants rated the average-sized model as more attractive.

The participants' self-esteem, which was evaluated as part of the study, also had an impact on their choices: Those with high self-esteem rated the models fairly similarly, while those with low self-esteem rated the average-sized model much more favourably.

"They tend to respond better to average-sized models, simply because size-zero models make them feel down about themselves," Prof. Bian said.

Another experiment along the same lines (using Topshop as the established brand, compared with a fictitious brand) found similar results. That second study also looked at participants' body weights and found that people were not necessarily more likely to prefer bigger models if they themselves weighed more; rather, a strong preference for average-sized models was again associated with lower self-esteem.

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There is a wealth of research showing that women's feelings about their bodies are negatively affected by the bombardment of advertising featuring extremely thin models. But even among women with high self-esteem, who are less negatively affected, average-sized models were rated just as appealing as zero-sized models. And among women with lower self-esteem, using very slim models actually had a negative effect for the brand.

That was less apparent for established brands that have cultivated a certain image, but the difference was stark with new brands – suggesting that advertisers looking to build a new relationship with consumers may want to rethink their standards.

A small lingerie company in New York learned that lesson. This year, the retailer Adore Me revealed results of testing it did by airing TV commercials featuring different models. An ad featuring a plus-sized model led to four times as many online sales compared with an ad featuring a thinner model.

"There's an overall mentality that you have to be super skinny," founder Morgan Hermand-Waiche told CNN. "We are showing that we offer lingerie for everyone."

But the researchers argue that even established brands might rethink the use of zero-sized models, since participants rated average-sized models just as favourably even for established brands. Given the current cultural climate, wherein advertisers are increasingly taken to task for upholding unrealistic beauty standards, there may be a PR benefit for those seen as bucking the trend – and more important, there may be very little downside.

Of course, this is just one study, looking at opinions of younger women as it relates to fashion brands. Prof. Bian is planning to do further research to test the perceptions of consumers of different ages and advertising outside of just the fashion industry.

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"Girls and women are affected by advertising stimuli. … It has a great impact on individuals' health," she said. "This is not only an economic issue. It is a social issue as well."

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