February 2017. The presence of disclaimers in advertisements that feature digitally-altered and unrealistic “thin ideal” models have very limited impact on female consumers. A new study shows that through an irrational process of self-deception, women who detect that images have been airbrushed still process the images as realistic and that they are not protected from either wanting to look like Photoshopped thin models or from the negative emotions triggered by exposure to thin ideal images.

Sylvie Borau, professor of marketing and researcher at Toulouse Business School, and Marchelo Vinhal Nepomuceno at HEC Montréal, examine the links between the detection of airbrushing and women’s emotional and attitudinal reactions in their paper The Self-Deceived Consumer: Women’s Emotional and Attitudinal Reactions to the Airbrushed Thin Idea in the Absence Versus Presence of Disclaimers, published in the Journal of Business Ethics in December 2016.

The paper calls for further research on the use of disclaimers and visual literacy, as well as more broadly the ethics of deceptive advertising.

Typology: four different types of woman and three core emotions

The authors of the study identified a typology of four different types of woman, categorized according to their level of detection of airbrushing (in the absence of a disclaimer), their emotional reactions to airbrushed thin models, and their attitudes toward images of such models:

– Resistants, who adopt a defensive attitude,
– Indifferents, who are detached,
– Hedonists, who appear to be naïve,
– Victims who are prone to self-deception.

“The typology revealed that most women are able to detect that the models’ images have been airbrushed, and experience a range of positive and negative reactions to the models”, said Sylvie Borau, professor of Marketing at TBS and author of the study.

In the second stage of the study, the researchers tested whether this typology is replicable in a large sample of women and investigated the relationships among the detection of airbrushing, the perceived unreality of the images, and women’s emotional and attitudinal reactions. They confirmed the three core emotions experienced by women when exposed to the airbrushed thin ideal: pleasure, displeasure, and aversion.

The researchers surveyed over 500 French women, aged 25-45 years old with diverse socio-demographic profiles. They focused on this range because most studies have used only adolescent or student samples to explore female reactions to female models. They felt it important to investigate adult women’s reactions to thin ideal models, because they represent an important target for advertising campaigns.

In a third step the authors explored the effects of disclaimers on women’s detection of airbrushing, perceived unreality, emotional reactions, and attitudinal responses to an ad.

Implications: theoretical, ethical and managerial

Taken together, these studies show that even when women are aware that the thin ideal models are Photoshopped – either on their own or with the help of a disclaimer – some still deceive themselves, they still want to resemble the airbrushed models, they still experience negative emptions from their exposure, and they still develop positive attitudes toward the altered images. Most importantly, they still perceive these images as somewhat realistic.

The study has important implications. First, it provides new insight into female consumers’ vulnerability to deceptive advertising. Understanding how women’s capacity to detect the unrealistic nature of thin ideal images is linked to their emotional reactions (whether positive or negative) can help policy makers implement more targeted, efficient interventions to protect them from the potential deleterious effects of such exposure.

Second, it provides new comprehension of the effect (or lack thereof) of labelling disclaimers. By showing that consumers can be self-deceived (i.e., detect when images have been airbrushed but still process the images as real), the results challenge the efficacy of disclaimers as a scheme to decrease women’s identification with the idealized models.

Third, the new typology of emotional reactions developed in this research can be used by market researchers and marketing managers, who will be better able to predict the performance of their advertising and implement more responsible campaigns.

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