Plus-Size Marketing: An Interview

A long time ago in a recently-post-college world far far away, my friend Jessica and I endeavored to write a body-image blog. We didn’t have time to keep it up, so it’s been closed, but I realized a lot of good material got hidden away when we did that. Here’s one of those pieces.

Jessica wrote the intro and located Lili for us. This particular post is from August 2011, and at this point, I can’t even find the issue of Vogue that inspired this whole conversation because, to be honest, none of these covers look likely.

Still, the discussion itself was important, and I loved talking with Lili because she delved way beyond the usual discussions of self-esteem and media portrayals into the psychology of marketing and effective ad campaigns. Enjoy!

The other day I was browsing Reddit (a site with content aggregated by its users) and came across a discussion about the recent issue of Vogue.  Vogue had recently had an issue where they trumpeted their use of plus-size models.  “Look!” cried the cover.  “We’re using a fat girl!  Isn’t she beautiful?  Isn’t she lovely?  Aren’t we just so progressive?” 

While I appreciated the sentiment, that yes, big girls are just as lovely as toothpick girls and all the girls in between, Vogue’s tone smacked of condescension, as though it was the hot girl at school who deigned to help all those poor ugly girls at school, because they would just be so pretty if they knew how to properly apply their lipstick.

I was curious about how plus-size women would react to Vogue’s pandering, whether they would appreciate the acknowledgement or be irritated by a perceived lack of sincerity, so I dove into Reddit’s comments, and that’s where I found Lili Plotkin.

Lili has recently completed a study that analyzes the responses that plus-size women have to directed advertising.  It was totally fascinating, and this is coming from a girl who can’t handle anything more scientific than “drop thing, thing fall down.”  I wasted no time in getting in touch with the budding sociologist and Laura and I assaulted her with our questions.

Hello, Lili!  Your name is fantastic.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Give us the rundown on your job, your loves, how you do your hair, all the basics. 
Well, I guess I could start by saying that I’m 21, an avid lover of horses, the Internet, and figuring out how things work. Unrelatedly, I also enjoy Law & Order, which I tend to call “Solving Crimes: The Show.” I just graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a B.S. degree in Advertising/Public Relations. It’s a fantastic school, and I’ve really enjoyed my time there!

Currently, I am poised to start work at a local advertising agency. I’ll be an account coordinator for the agency’s Xerox account, and I’m incredibly excited! It’s great to see your education and school’s reputation working for you, especially when you’re like me and will probably have to scrimp for many years to afford loan payments. 😉

My loves are many: work wise, I’m pursuing a career in Account Planning or consumer research, so I really enjoy talking to people, reading psychology journals, and just generally trying to “get inside the head” of consumers. Personal life wise, I enjoy anything from a delicious chunk of salami with beer to petting all the neighborhood’s outdoor kitties. All of them.

I live with my wonderful boyfriend, Stuart, and we are the caretakers of a tiny cat named Lola, whose favorite thing to do is chase me around and jump on me to hear me scream. I also had fish once upon a time, which Lola frightened to death–gruesome, I know! As far as my hair goes…well…it’s a work in progress. Usually for classes I toss it into a pony, but sometimes I will flat iron it in order to look like a Real Adult. I figure now that I’m starting this job I’ll have to look like a Real Adult every day, so I guess that means I’ll have to tame my wild curls into something presentable. And wear cardigans. Right? Isn’t that what adults do?

Yeah, presumably.  I mean, I’m wearing a cardigan right now, but I haven’t washed it in a few days.  You win some, you lose some.  So, tell us about this study!  What gave you the idea?
Well, I always knew I would have to do an undergraduate senior thesis. It’s something our department does to kind of set our Ad/PR program apart from others–the thesis gives us research and writing experience. I also always knew that I’d want to do it on some facet of fashion.

Last summer, I did an internship at an advertising agency, where I learned a lot about the business of account planning. A lot of it was super interesting to me–it’s the profession of being the voice of the consumer. An account planner gets to research people, their habits, and wants, and come back to the campaign team with all of that information. It struck me that doing a study (for my thesis) on an aspect of fashion advertising that is in really high debate right now would be very cool. Thus came about my idea to ask plus size women what they thought of plus size models.

The study itself is cool. I got to talk to 9 women in an online focus group setting, and they spent some time discussing various questions centered around plus size models. Writing the lit review for this thesis, though, was awful. There’s nothing out there about WHY some guy in an agency thought plus size models were a good idea. It was so hard to find outside research to back up my study. From what I know about ad agencies, and how they work, though, I was pretty sure that one day some guy woke up with a “brilliant idea” to use plus size models to appeal to plus size women, and it seemed rational, so why not go with it? But women are much more complicated than that. I would know!

Complicated how?  I mean, naturally, as soon as a company starts trumpeting their use of plus-size models all the plus-size women start lining up to buy, right?  Simple as pancakes for breakfast!
The problem, without trying to dig myself into a hole here, is this: plus size women vary greatly in body type and composition, and it’s very difficult for us to find clothing that fits. While aesthetically pleasing ads are cool to see, they don’t help us find out what fits and looks good on a body like ours. Not to mention that the whole female psyche is bound up in wanting to love ourselves, but feeling like we can’t because many of us don’t fit the “ideal” of what our society says a woman should be like. We want to feel fashionable and an accepted normal in society, so we like seeing larger women in ads–but it also makes us uncomfortable because the sheer act of putting a “plus size” woman in a magazine is calling attention to the fact that there is something besides “normal” women, and that leads to feelings of segregation and feeling like an animal in a zoo. Hey, look at that girl! She’s got big hips! I think it’s not just a plus size problem, though. All women wrestle with their personal demons. We all want to love ourselves, but feel like we can’t. It’s a cycle of frustration…no one wants to be “othered.”

You’re a plus-sized woman yourself, aren’t you?  Do you feel like this has impacted your interpretation of the study, or even the study’s focus?
In my interpretation of the study, I strove to be as impartial as I could be. I didn’t want to lead the women into saying anything that I thought they might say, because I knew my research was nearly worthless at that point. It’s like asking people to say that they liked the color red, and then acting surprised when they say they like the color red. I also didn’t tell the women that I was plus size myself, so that they wouldn’t answer any differently.

As for the focus of the study, I was insanely curious to find out how other plus size women felt. I guess that in this situation, I completely separated myself from being a consumer, and tried to be a researcher. Throughout the whole process I had a feeling of a scientist who was observing interactions from the other side of glass. I was so keen to understand these women, no matter what they had to say, that I was really afraid to let my own personal feelings have a say.

Did you find yourself surprised by some of the women’s answers and reactions to your questions?
Absolutely! When I asked if they PERSONALLY felt that plus size models were fashionable, they couldn’t seem to actually give me a straight answer. They’d always defer the decision on fashionable-or-not to “others”. One woman said that she didn’t think others thought plus size models could be fashionable. It was almost as if these women didn’t consider that they could also be authorities on what is and isn’t fashionable.

Another thing that the women brought up was feelings of segregation. I guess I hadn’t ever really given that a thought before. One woman even compared stores that have separate plus size lines to the “separate but not equal” thing during the civil rights movement. The connection is there, but I never realized that those strong feelings existed in this particular group of consumers.

In the scope of the whole study, it was also very interesting to see how women who were a size 14 and women who were a size 26 had the exact same issues, problems, and fears.

I was particularly interested and surprised to read the descriptive words women used in response to the pictures of models, particularly the fact that the words used for the thin models was overwhelmingly negative.  Many contained the idea that the thin models were unnatural – words like ‘alien’, ‘unhealthy’, and ‘anorexic’.  Doesn’t this ‘otherize’ the thin models in the same way that the plus-size women participating in the study themselves felt segregated?
Absolutely.
I didn’t go over that because it wasn’t the point of my study, but I did notice that. Women are terrible to each other. We all want to feel like we can belong, and are beautiful, but once someone takes the first blow…it’s all downhill from there. I wish we could all just love ourselves, and from that point learn to love others for doing the same.

In the same vein, it seemed like responses to both sets of pictures included an aversion to Photoshop.  Do you think that the reaction to the thin models would be improved if no Photoshop (or even LESS Photoshop) was used?  Basically, is the plus-sized woman’s aversion to thin models based entirely around size, or is it partially the way models are constructed on the computer to prepare them for publication? 
Hmm. This is a tough one. I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s envy, mixed with the instinct to judge a body that isn’t your own. It’s also definitely a hatred of Photoshop. The sheer act of using it implies to women that not only were they not good enough to begin with, they can only be that way if they use some sort of manipulation tool. It’s why some women undergo extensive cosmetic surgeries.

Which brings us to another tricky topic: cosmetic surgery.  It can be a sensitive issue, so you don’t have to answer, but we’d be interested to hear where do you stand on it.  Do you think cosmetic surgery is a good idea?  If so, to what degree? 
Personally, I think that if a woman (or man!) feels like they need cosmetic surgery, they have the right to have it, and not be judged for it. We’re all grown ups…we should take responsibility for ourselves, keep our eyes on our own “plate” as it were, and allow others to pursue their own happiness! So I guess I would say that if it makes you happy, go for it.

You mentioned in your study that all of the participants were found in a body-image forum, but at least one was attempting to lose weight to fit into a smaller dress size.  How do you feel about the fat acceptance movement?  Do you find it at odds with the desire some plus-size women have to lose weight?
I think that it’s a noble cause–to fight for society to accept women as they are, fat and all. I guess I just don’t identify with it–I find my body to be a very personal thing, and it’s hard for me to take something so personal and give society power over it, by admitting others hate it. They don’t have to like your body, that’s the thing. But people don’t have the right to make you feel badly. I guess that’s kind of what the movement is about, to me. Fighting for the right to feel good, while understanding everyone may not agree. Fighting for respect.

I think that a woman can definitely be a part of the movement and wish to lose weight. She may be trying to slim down for health reasons or to suit her own personal ideals. But she still can believe that all women have the right to respect, even if people don’t like their body type.

I want to divert a little and talk about account planning and “getting inside the consumer’s head” like you mentioned earlier.  All I know about marketing comes from one communications class I took and Mad Men; you read psychology journals for fun!  So are you immune to ads now that you know how they’re put together?  What do you enjoy most about being in advertising?
Honestly, it’s the thinking that I like. I love being able to connect on a human level with other humans by understanding (or thinking I understand) what makes them tick. I am fascinated by humans; we’re these complex, primordial animals, and everything we do is based on instinct, feeling, emotion. We are also unique in that some of us are aware of that and try to understand it. It’s interesting because it’s impossible! We can only ever really answer as to why we personally do something. But the effort of trying to connect with a human being is really inspiring. Especially one that is trying to explain why they consume a certain product or brand. At the end of the day, we’re all just lizards that put on clothes and started reading books and going to college. It’s easy to be amazed by humanity once you take a step back and realize how humbling our entire species is, in its complexity and beauty.

As for ads…haha. I like seeing them. I try to tune out figuring them out as much as possible. I’m know to be particularly partial to ads that have dancing/singing animals, like that Aflac commercial with the breakdancing pigeon. I mean, seriously, what? Haha. I just try to enjoy the creative, but sometimes the “insight” about the consumer is so glaringly obvious that I can’t help but make note of it. I also have issues with understanding why advertising is such a vile industry to some people. I think it’s clever and interesting.

So based on your knowledge, how would you organize an ad campaign to avoid the consumer feeling ‘othered’ in the way you described? 
I’m still a small fry in the world of advertising, but I think that I would go in the direction of an honest campaign–one that blatantly laid it on the table. Some of us are thin, some of us are fat, some of us are young, and some are old. We’re all women. If the campaign was for a brand of clothing, like Forever 21, I’d make suggestions to abolish the entire concept of a separate plus size line/store, and to use testimonials of real women to show how the clothing looked on them. I would want to tell other national brands that the best way to reach out to women was to just act like there wasn’t a cultural ideal. To place regular women in their ads without looking for a pat on the back, just because it was the right thing to do. You want to sell clothes? Show people how the clothes actually look. And what better way to do that than to use actual bodies? If the clothes are really so great, they should speak for themselves.

That sounds pretty awesome, actually, but would it sell clothes?  Based on your study, how do you think the average plus-size consumer would respond to an ad like that?  And how would a clothing company respond to a proposal to run that campaign?
I think that if an ad campaign integrated a way to be able to link to a listing in an online store, heck yes the clothes would sell! Maybe through a QR code or, in online advertising, a link. The average plus size consumer would definitely buy clothing if it was shown on her body type. My study backed that up, too: many women said that it’s so difficult and exhausting for them to try on clothing in stores. If they could go into a store armed with the knowledge that “this pink top or that dress looks great on bodies like mine”, then you’re already one step closer to purchase. They also said that if a company or brand had the “courage” to do something like that with its advertising, they’d support it.

As for how a clothing company would respond–it’s hard to say. I think that you will always have people in the fashion industry who believe that fashion is for thin people only. They will say that it is not who their brand is, to represent curvy women. But I feel strongly that if you pitch a campaign idea with enough belief behind yourself, and with enough research to allow you to “walk the talk”, then you can convince companies to do some pretty innovative things. The point is for them to sell clothes, right? So go from that angle. If they aren’t interested in the plus size consumer, then why bother spending the money to create an entirely separate line and storefront? It can harm much more than it helps.

I’d like to add that if advertisers would stop trying so hard to pat themselves on the back for using plus size women in ads, actually plus size consumers would be more positive towards them. It’s a trust thing. You can’t come at it waving pictures of plus size women around, screaming about how progressive you are. It’s got to be like…take a hit to your ego, and just act like it’s something normal…like you think it’s weird that everyone isn’t doing it.

Thanks, Lili!  

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