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During casting calls, a model's measurements are among the chief criteria that fashion brands consider. But when choosing who will present their newest collections, the size of a model's brain is rarely a factor.

Online clothing retailer Betabrand has decided to change that – in a shrewd attempt to woo the social media masses and win some free publicity.

This week, the San Francisco-based retailer unveiled its spring collection, entirely modelled by women who have PhDs, or are working toward the degree.

It is part of a trend in fashion marketing: Companies are becoming more aware of the fact that switching up their models to promote a feel-good message is also an easy way to amplify their advertising at no extra cost.

Call it the Dove blueprint: For more than a decade, the company has staked its advertising strategy on the idea that the brand is helping to improve female self-esteem by questioning entrenched beauty ideals. Many have criticized it, but the theory also helped Dove make itself part of a larger conversation about advertising and how it affects women's views of themselves.

Lately, the strategy seems to be picking up steam. Earlier this year, lounge wear and lingerie brand Aerie made news for its pledge not to photoshop its models – and its new practice of using models who are actually curvier to show off clothes in larger sizes.

In Betabrand's case, the retailer is hoping that by putting forward smart, accomplished women as its models, it can also harness some free buzz.

"If we end up being the Dove of the brain, then we've succeeded greatly," founder Chris Lindland said in an interview Wednesday.

In the online retailer's case, the project is an offshoot of another feature of the site that it calls Model Citizen: as a small startup founded in 2010 and now with 50 employees, Mr. Lindland said it simply has not been able to afford professional models. It has always asked customers to submit their photos to act as its clothing models. About 17,000 customer images are now on the site.

One of those citizen-models is working toward a PhD in neuroscience at Stanford, which gave them the idea to ask if there were others who hold doctorates or are working toward them, who might be interested. Roughly 60 women responded; models who fit the sample sizes (small or medium for tops and dresses, 4 to 6 for pants) were chosen, and more photos are coming as they wait for the women outside the San Francisco area to whom they mailed clothes to model.

"We now have a stuffed inbox filled with all kinds of other PhDs who want to model for us," Mr. Lindland said. "…It feels like a great moment of goodwill right now."

This tactic is increasingly important for all marketers, since a message has infinitely more impact coming from a friend talking about it on Facebook or Twitter, for example, than it does when simply delivered in an advertisement.

Fashion and beauty are especially ripe industries for this kind of ad hook, since female consumers especially tend to feel strongly about the ways that advertising affects their self-image. The models in these photo shoots are presented, for better or worse, as ideals: or as they are often called in the industry, "aspirational" images.

Suggesting that consumers might aspire to smarts as well as beauty is already winning the brand some new fans online.

However, greater attention also invites greater scrutiny. At the same time many were praising Betabrand for its spring campaign, others were highlighting a product on the site for criticism of its use of stereotypical imagery.

The brand's "Geisha Cordarounds" pants were criticized by a few on social media for its use of a Japanese-style "geisha" print in its lining and for its name.

"That's a product we've sold for a few years. The 'This offends me' tweet comes across every four months or so," Mr. Lindland said. "I don't know what to say about that. Some people will take offense to that."

The co-opting of stereotypes from other cultures has been widely panned as contributing to climate in which anything foreign is set apart as the "other," and to a kind of casual racism.

Brands have come under fire before for not being careful enough to eliminate this kind of language from their advertising. For example, last year General Motors Co. pulled an ad off the air in Canada because it used a remix of a 1938 song called "Oriental Swing" with offensive lyrics about China.

Here is what some of Betabrand's critics had to say online on Wednesday: