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Consider the source

Consider the source

Ryan Sullivan

Sep 10, 2014

You have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours honing the perfect message, tested that it resonates with your customers, and identified the clear winner to take to market. However, despite all of the attention and time spent, is it possible that something was missed? By focusing so intently on the language of the message itself, could something so critical that it could derail a campaign have been overlooked? Rather than solely focusing on the message itself, perhaps we should also be considering and gathering feedback on the messenger delivering it.

Consider for a moment the use of plus-sized models in magazines, clothing catalogues, and television advertisements. Commonsense dictates that customers should appreciate a company forgoing the use of unattainably thin models and instead casting models that more accurately reflect the average consumer.  By doing so, women could more easily picture themselves wearing the clothes, thereby increasing positive associations with the product and driving more sales. However, a team of researchers from Arizona State University, Erasmus University, and the University of Cologne put this assumption to the test by observing the relative difference in body size between the model in an advertisement and the viewer. As expected, they found that women with a higher BMI reported a lower level of self-esteem after looking at advertisements with thinner models.

Surprisingly, however, these same women also reported having a lower level of self-esteem after viewing advertisements portraying heavier women, as did women with an average BMI. The researchers theorized that this occurred because the women saw themselves being mirrored in the advertisements by women whose size often carries a social stigma (in the case of women with a higher BMI) or were worried that they may have the same body type (in the case of women with an average BMI). Rather than generating the goodwill and positive associations that might be expected, the use of heavier models was instead having the opposite effect. Interestingly, respondents of all body types reported the highest levels of self-esteem after viewing ads without any models.

The preceding example poignantly illustrates how unexpected, and even subconscious, factors can come into play as people interact with a message – particularly when a model or actor is involved – and highlights the need to challenge our assumptions.  We assume that messages will be most effectively digested by casting actors and models that reflect the target audience, but as we’ve just seen, that is not always the case. Different components factor into an individual’s identity and sense of self (race, accent, socio-economic status, level of education, sexual orientation, family structure, and level of adherence to dress, beauty, or gender norms to name just a few), and not only can it be difficult to predict which elements a viewer will connect with and respond to, but also if that response will be positive or negative. These attributes similarly play a role in determining whether or not the spokesperson is perceived as being aligned with the message and being an appropriate messenger to deliver it. With so many factors at play, it’s essential to ask respondents directly about their perceptions of the actors/characters, the message itself, and how well the two fit with each other. By doing so, you invite them to stop and consider factors lurking below the surface that could be affecting their perceptions of your message without them even realizing it.

Organizations frequently gauge the public’s opinion when choosing a celebrity spokesperson to make sure that they’re a good fit and the best figure to represent the company and deliver their message. Shouldn’t the same care be taken with the common man too?

Ryan Sullivan

Ryan Sullivan

Research Manager

The most adventurous thing I’ve done is spend a month excavating in Nebraska for undiscovered archaeological sites.

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