An experimental study examined the effects of exposure to ads containing different male models (muscular, slim, plus-size, overall diversity, and no models) on men’s well-being. Results showed that participants exposed to a diversity of models were less worried about their body fat than those exposed to other types of male models or to ads without male models. The study was published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Ads or advertisements are messages designed to promote a product, service, business or an idea. They are typically created with the goal of reaching a particular audience and encouraging them to take a specific action such as making a purchase, subscribing for a service, supporting a cause or changing their behavior in a way the advertiser desires.
Advertising as an industry has grown tremendously over the recent decades. Some of the most valuable companies in the world are companies that have the largest advertising revenue. Companies such as Google and Facebook derive most of their revenue from advertising. Behemoths such as Alibaba, Amazon, or Tencent have advertising revenues in multiple billions of dollars per year.
Advertisements are now omnipresent, but advertising content is not designed to be realistic. Advertisements often contain edited or idealized presentations of environments and people that are designed to elicit specific reactions in people. Oftentimes, persons presented in advertisements are much more physically attractive or in other ways different from typical real persons, made such through extensive digital editing, makeup and special effects. That is why scientists became interested in studying how people respond to persons-models found in the advertisements.
The authors behind the new study wanted to know how males react to being exposed to different types of male models in advertisements. They note that advertisements most often use idealized male models. These models have athletic, muscular, well-proportion physique, with broad shoulders and narrow waist.
These types of men are used because advertisers strongly believe that “attractiveness sells.” Thus, using attractive male models should increase the effects of advertising. But is it possible that real men, when exposed to such images in advertising, might compare their own real body shape to these idealized models and conclude that their body is not nearly as attractive. This would cause a drop in the body satisfaction of viewers, something that would not happen if non-idealized models were used.
“The lead author, Orpha de Lenne, has written a PhD on the effects of non-idealized models in advertisements on consumers’ body image and advertising outcomes,” explained study author Laura Vandenbosch of KU Leuven. “Together with Orpha, we reasoned that it is well-known that a poor body image is present in a significant proportion of men and women. Part of the reason why men and women suffer from body dissatisfaction is the abundance of narrowly defined appearance ideals in the current society.”
“To change the idealization of thin women and muscular men, the coverage of non-idealized models is key. Most of the research examining direct effects of the portrayal of such non-idealized models focuses on women. As men also suffer from idealized male models, we aimed to explore how they respond to different types of non-idealized models.”
To explore this, these researchers devised a study that included 363 male participants from Belgium (53%) and Ireland (47%). Approximately half were college students. They were randomly divided into four groups – those exposed to muscular models, slim models, plus-size models, diverse models, and a group not be exposed to advertisements with any male models (control).
The researchers developed ads for a fictional surfboard brand named “Waves.” Surfboards were chosen because advertising such products provides an opportunity to show a full male body in a naturalistic setting without creating the need to explain why these bodies are shown.
Participants completed assessments of trait masculinity, current subjective evaluation of their own body, how much one views oneself as an object to be evaluated, perception of their own body (i.e., how fat/lean and how muscular they see themselves), self-esteem, attitude towards the ad, attitude toward the brand in the advertisements, and purchase intention (“If you would be looking for a surfboard, how likely would you be to purchase a surfboard of this brand?”).
Participants completed the study online. They were first asked to complete sociodemographic questions and the assessment of masculinity. Participants were then shown the relevant ad for at least 20 seconds. Afterwards, they completed the remaining assessments.
Results showed that men exposed to diversity ads experienced much more positive effects for body fat attitudes than men exposed to muscular, slim, or control ads. In other words, these men considered their body to be less fat. Whether participants were Irish or Belgian had no effect on the results.
“We found that men from Belgium responded to the ads in the same way as men from Ireland,” Vandenbosch noted. “This was surprising as Ireland is a more masculine oriented country than Belgium so we had expected some differences would occur.”
Men who scored high on dominance (i.e., men who considered themselves more dominant) reported being more likely to purchase the advertised surfboards after being shown ads with slim male models compared to men low in dominance. On the other hand, men low in dominance were more likely to purchase the surfboards when they were exposed to ads with plus-size models.
“We found that men who were exposed to the diversity condition, experience more positive effects on low body fat attitudes than men who were exposed to the muscular, slim, and no model conditions. However, it should be noted that we did not find any differences between the diversity and plus size condition with regard to low body fat attitudes. This result might indicate that both diversity and plus-size model ads are able to generate positive effects for men’s body image whereas non-idealized model ads focusing on slim men seem to be less successful”, study authors conclude.
The study contributes to the scientific understanding of effects of advertisements. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, advertisements were shown for 20 seconds only. This might not be enough to achieve the effects that were the focus of the study. Additionally, participants were all from two Western European countries. Results on other populations might not be the same.
“We still know nothing about the long-term effects of a continued portrayal of non-idealizes models in all types of media including ads,” Vandenbosch said. “We do know idealized models have negative effects.”
The study, “Intercultural insights on the impact of different non-idealized models on men’s body image and advertising perceptions”, was authored by Orpha de Lenne, Ciara Mahon, Steven Eggermont, Tim Smits4, David Hevey, and Laura Vandenbosch.