Vanity and Advertising: a Study of the Impact of Appearance-Related, Sex, and Achievement Appeals

John J. Watson, University of Canterbury
Ruth S. Rayner, Coca-Cola Amatil (NZ) Ltd.
Steven Lysonski, Marquette Univesity
Srinivas Durvasula, Marquette University
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this study was to determine if individual levels of vanity are related to consumer evaluations of advertising. Using three specific advertising appeals (i.e., appearance, sex, and achievement), attitudes toward the ad and thoughts elicited by the advertisement were measured and compared across high and low vanity groups. Findings indicate that consumers with high levels of vanity not only rate advertisements using achievement, sex, and appearance-related appeals more favorably than consumers with low levels of vanity, but the thoughts that these advertisements elicit are significantly more positive for consumers with high levels of vanity. This study extends the consumer behavior research on vanity, and the results of the study have implications for marketers designing promotional communication for specific target markets.
[ to cite ]:
John J. Watson, Ruth S. Rayner, Steven Lysonski, and Srinivas Durvasula (1999) ,"Vanity and Advertising: a Study of the Impact of Appearance-Related, Sex, and Achievement Appeals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 445-450.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 445-450

VANITY AND ADVERTISING: A STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF APPEARANCE-RELATED, SEX, AND ACHIEVEMENT APPEALS

John J. Watson, University of Canterbury

Ruth S. Rayner, Coca-Cola Amatil (NZ) Ltd.

Steven Lysonski, Marquette Univesity

Srinivas Durvasula, Marquette University

[This research was supported by the University of Canterbury, Grant 2313996.]

ABSTRACT -

The purpose of this study was to determine if individual levels of vanity are related to consumer evaluations of advertising. Using three specific advertising appeals (i.e., appearance, sex, and achievement), attitudes toward the ad and thoughts elicited by the advertisement were measured and compared across high and low vanity groups. Findings indicate that consumers with high levels of vanity not only rate advertisements using achievement, sex, and appearance-related appeals more favorably than consumers with low levels of vanity, but the thoughts that these advertisements elicit are significantly more positive for consumers with high levels of vanity. This study extends the consumer behavior research on vanity, and the results of the study have implications for marketers designing promotional communication for specific target markets.

INTRODUCTION

Advertising appeals that focus on personal vanity are widely used in the media today. We see Cindy Crawford on an almost daily basis, telling us that Revlon (will make us more beautiful; there are more "diet," "low fat," and "lite" products on the market than one would care to count; and entire industries rely on our quest for physical beautyCsales of dieting-related products are well in excess of $50 billion and the cosmetic industry is worth over $18 billion annually (U.S. Industrial Outlook 1992). Despite the pervasiveness of vanity appeals and consumer quests for physical beauty, little research has assessed the effectiveness of such advertising, largely due to the difficulty in measuring the construct. Until recently, there were few if any ways to quantify indivdiual levels of vanity. However, in 1995 Netemeyer, Burton, and Lichtenstein published a scale designed to measure individual levels of physical and achievement vanity. Although Netemeyer et al. conducted a series of construct validation tests for their scale, research in this particular area of consumer behavior is in its infancy. More work needs to be doneCwork that tests the robustness of the scale, examines the patterns of interrelationships between vanity and other constructs, and applies the measure in different contexts. The purpose of this paper is to do just thatCuse the Netemeyer et al. (1995) vanity scale to see how the construct is related to (1) appearance-related, (2) sex, and (3) achievement appeals within the context of advertising. On the following pages, a brief review of the literature will be provided. This review of literature will lead to a number of hypotheses which will be tested, and the results of these tests further discussed. The paper will conclude with the limitations of the study and possible areas of future research.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Vanity Defined

Vanity is a concept that has been discussed for thousands of years. Aristotle stated that the vain have a blown up self-image, but they are not worthy of it. Hume said that "vanity is rather to esteem’d as a social passion, and a bond of union among men." Rarely has the concept been cast in a favorable light, frequently being related to conceit, arrogance, boastfulness, haughtiness, and priggishness (Chakrabarti 1992). Christian morality quite clearly regards it as a vice.

Discourse on vanity can be found in disciplines as diverse as linguistic anthropology (cf., Kovecses 1986), economics (cf., Hackner and Nyberg 1996), poetry (cf., Johnson 1993), and even consumer research (cf., Netemeyer et al. 1995). Within marketing, formal definitions of vanity comprise two primary dimensionsCphysical vanity and achievement vanity. Physical vanity has been defined as an excessive concern for, and/or a positive (and perhaps inflated) view of one’s physical appearance (Netemeyer et al. 1995; Raskin and Terry 1988). Achievement vanity is an excessive concern for, and/or a positive (and perhaps inflated) view of one’s personal achievements (Netemeyer et al. 1995). Netemeyer et al. (1995) designed a scale to measure both physical and achievement vanity and operationalized vanity in terms of four distinct trait components:

1.  A concern for physical appearance,

2.  A positive (and perhaps inflated) view of physical appearance,

3.  A concern for achievement,

4.  A positive (and perhaps nflated) view of achievement.

Vanity and Appearance

There is a strong emphasis on outward appearance in our culture (Bar-Tel and Saxe 1976; Bloch 1993; Franzoi and Herzog 1987; Netemeyer et al. 1995; Richins 1991). Television programs, magazines, and advertising in all media provide the public with a constant stream of beautiful women and handsome men. Peirce (1990) analyzed the ideology constructed in Seventeen magazine and suggested that appearance is one of the primary concerns of a teenage girl. Petrie et al. (1996) found that the number of messages aimed towards men concerning physical fitness and health in the popular press have increased over the past 30 years, as has the general popularity of health and fitness activities. Numerous products are advertised on the basis of claims of enhancing one’s appearance and/or the benefits associated with being considered physically attractive (Solomon 1985, 1992).

Within academe, studies have reported that physical attractiveness is positively related to benefits such as increased social popularity and power, as well as increased self-esteem (Adams 1977; Goldman and Lewis 1977; Jackson, Sullivan, and Hymes 1987; Krantz 1987). Feingold (1992) concluded that attractive people are perceived to be "more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than unattractive people" (p. 304). Several studies have shown that the biases toward attractive people begin in childhood (cf., Clifford and Walster 1973). Given the substantial benefits of attractiveness in our culture, it is not surprising that many individuals become highly concerned with their appearance and pursue greater physical attractiveness (Bloch 1993). Attractiveness does not come without its drawbacks, however. In his discussion of the attractiveness stereotype, Bassili (1981, p. 237) notes that although subjects "assume that good looks are instrumental to leading a socially and sexually exciting life, this lifestyle is marred by vanity and self-centeredness" (italics added).

When examining individual levels of vanity within the context of advertising, a number of relationships seem evident. Netemeyer et al.’s (1995) definition of the construct characterizes a consumer with high levels of vanity as having an "excessive concern for, and/or a positive (and perhaps inflated) view of one’s physical appearance." Moreover, the Physical Vanity dimension of the vanity scale, which has been positively correlated with consumer use of cosmetics and amount of money spent on clothing (cf., Netemeyer et al. 1995), is operationalized in terms of one’s attractiveness and sexual appeal. The scale requires individuals to indicate their opinions with respect to the attractiveness and sexual appeal of their own body, and respondents are required to indicate whether they believe that other people are envious of their 'good looks’ and 'attractive body’. Consequently, a consumer with high levels of vanity is characterized as not only having positive attitudes regarding their appearance, but also pertaining to their sexual appeal. Therefore, it is hypothesized that:

H1:  In comparison to people with low levels of vanity, people with high levels of vanity will evaluate advertisements that emphasize appearance-related appeals more favorably.

H2:  In contrast to people with low levels of vanity, people with high levels of vanity will evaluate advertisements that use sex appeals more favorably.

Vanity and Achievement Appeals

In addition to the appearance dimension stresed above, consumers who display high levels of vanity are also characterized as having an "excessive concern for, and/or a positive (and perhaps inflated) view of one’s personal achievements" (Netemeyer et al. 1995). Krebs and Adinolfi (1975) found that physical attractiveness was related to personality characteristics such as achievement for female college students. This suggests that an attractive female is more likely than her unattractive female peer to show achievement needs.

Netemeyer et al. (1995) characterize consumers high in vanity as having positive attitudes toward the achievement of both personal and professional goals, coupled with a desire for such achievements to be recognized not only by themselves, but also by others. Due to the achievement component of the Netemeyer et al. scale, it is hypothesized that:

H3:  In comparison to people with low levels of vanity, people with high levels of vanity will evaluate advertisements that use achievement appeals more favorably.

METHOD

Subjects: Two hundred and seventy-four students from a New Zealand university were recruited for the research. Students from Management, Engineering, Economics, Law, and Art participated in the study.

Stimuli: Six advertisements were used in the study, only three of which were relevant for this research. Thirty-eight potential ads were initially pilot tested for suitability. Prior to testing, both academic judges and a group of student respondents evaluated the ads for strength of appearance, sex, and achievement appeals. Ultimately, the ads which elicited the most thoughts related to appearance, sex, and achievement were chosen. The final advertisements used in the study were for a toothpaste (appearance-related appeal), clothing (appearance-related and sex appeals), and an investment fund (achievement appeal). To avoid potential order effects, two booklets of the advertisements were created using a random ordering procedure.

Procedure: At the beginning of each session, the experimenter announced that the main objective of the study was to examine student reactions to advertisements. Subjects were told not to discuss the advertisements with their classmates, but rather, to look at the advertisements as they would if they were reading a magazine.

Each advertisement was shown in the order it was presented in each booklet using color slides and two overhead projectors. Each color copy of each advertisement was shown for two minutes. Two overhead projectors and both advertisement booklets were used in all but two of the data collection sessions. In these two situations, only one projector and one advertisement booklet were used due to the size constraints of the room.

The Questionnaire: The questionnaire took approximately 15 minutes to complete and contained items for attitude towards the ad, attitude towards the brand, brand familiarity, the Netemeyer et al. (1995) vanity scale, and some basic demographic questions. Two methods were used to measure attitude toward the adCa three item, forced choice scale and a free elicitation of thoughts technique. The thought elicitation instructions were given to the students as per Andrew, Lysonski, and Durvasula (1991).

Coding of Thoughts: The seven categories described by Richins (1994) served as the foundation for the coding scheme used to content analyze the self-generated thoughts for each of the ads. The seven categories were utilitarian/functional, enjoyment, interpersonal ties/emotional, identity/social, financial, appearance related, and other. Because achievement appeals were central to the study, the achievement dimension of Richins’ identity/social category served as its own category. In addition, four other categories emerged from the data: (1) class, prestige, and status references,(2) sexual references, (3) references related to the product, and (4) references about the ad itself. The final coding scheme had 12 categories and is provided in Table 1. Respondents also indicated whether each thought was positive, neutral, or negative.

ANALYSIS AND RESULTS

Examination of Extraneous Variables

Two potential confounds, brand familiarity and order effects, were examined to see if they provided alternative explanations for the results. Chi-square analysis and analysis of covariance indicated that no significant brand familiarity or order effects were present for any of the ads.

Defining Vanity Groups

Respondents who scored in the top third of the Netermeyer et al. (1995) vanity scale were categorized as having high levels of vanity, and respondents who scored in the bottom third of the scale were categorized as having low levels of vanity. The demographic characteristics of the resulting high and low vanity groups were compared to assess equality on these variables. There were no significant differences on any of the measured variables (i.e., gender, age, marital status, income) except "major" (c2=35.7; p<0.01).

TABLE 1

CODING SCHEME FOR ELICITATION OF THOUGHTS FOR ADVERTISEMENTS

Content Analysis

Two judges independently categorised 2107 thoughts. Overall, 1664 of the 2107 thoughts were identically classified by both judgesCa 79% agreement rate. Conflicts were resolved first through negotiation between the two judges and second by an outside judge if initial differences could not be reconciled. The outside judge was used only once for all of the 2107 thoughts that were classified.

Number of Thoughts Elicited

Each respondent listed, on average, a total of 8.0 thoughts across the three advertisement stimuliC2.66 thoughts per advertisement. Respondents with high levels of vanity provided an average of 3.07 thoughts per ad and respondents with low levels of vanity provided 2.41 thoughts per ad.

Hypothesis Testing: H1

In order to test the first hypothesis, that people with high levels of vanity (in comparison to people with low levels of vanity) will have more favorable attitudes toward advertisements that use appearance-related appeals, two different analyses were conducted. First, the Aad scores for respondents with high levels of vanity were compared with the Aad scores for respondents with low levels of vanity for the toothpaste advertisement. Aad was measured using an aggregate, three-item scale. A toothpaste ad was chosen for its use of a strong appearance-related appeal. The second test of H1 centered on the free-elicitation thoughts listed by members of the two groups. It was expected that the toothpaste ad would elicit more "positive" thoughts that were appearance-related from high vanity respondents.

Analysis of variance indicated that people with high levels of vanity had significantly higher Aad scores for the ad than people with low levels of vanity (F=15.98, p<.001). This indicates that respondents with high levels of vanity appear to like the toothpaste advertisement much more than respondents with low levels of vanity. Assuming that the appearance-related appeal of the advertisement is the cause for this difference, the result supports Hypothesis 1. However, without examining the thoughts provided by the respondents, it is impossible to know whether this assumption is valid or not.

A chi-square analysis was conducted to examine the thoughts elicited by te toothpaste ad. Results of this analysis indicate that respondents with high levels of vanity are significantly more likely to have "positive," appearance-related thoughts than people with low levels of vanity (c2=18.54, df=2, p<.001). This result provides additional support for H1.

The clothing advertisement also elicited a large number of appearance-related thoughts. Consequently, these data were used to further test H1. A chi-square analysis indicated that respondents with high levels of vanity were also significantly more likely to make positive, appearance-related comments when exposed to the clothing advertisement (c2=13.15, df=2, p<.001), again providing further support for H1.

Hypothesis Testing: H2

In order to test the second hypothesis, that people with high levels of vanity (in comparison to people with low levels of vanity) will evaluate advertisements that use sex appeals more favorably, Aad scores for the clothing advertisement and the sexual references elicited when respondents were exposed to the advertisement were examined. There were significant differences between the high and low vanity respondents with respect to their Aad scores for this ad (F=43.39, p<.001).

In addition, chi-square analysis suggests that when exposed to the clothing ad people with high levels of vanity have significantly more sexual thoughts that are positive in valence than people low in vanity (c2=66.65, df=2, p<.001). Ninety percent of the respondents with high levels of vanity recorded thoughts that were positive, compared to only 38 percent of the low vanity respondents. Both the result of the analysis of variance and the chi-square analysis strongly support H2.

Hypothesis Testing: H3

In order to test the final hypothesis, that people with high levels of vanity (in comparison to people with low levels of vanity) will evaluate advertisements that use achievement appeals more favorably, Aad scores for the investment fund advertisement and thoughts related to this ad were examined. Analysis of variance indicated that respondents with high levels of vanity had significantly higher Aad scores for this ad than respondents with low levels of vanity (F=23.54, p<.001). Once again, assuming that the achievement appeal of the advertisement is the cause for the difference, H3 is supported.

Analysis of the thoughts listed for the investment fund advertisement provides additional support for H3. A chi-square analysis indicated that respondents with high levels of vanity were significantly more likely to provide positive, achievement-related thoughts than respondents with low levels of vanity (c2=28.44, df=2, p<.001).

Discussion and Implication

The findings from this study provide strong support for all of the hypotheses. In comparison to people with low levels of vanity, people with high levels of vanity evaluated advertisements that emphasized appearance-related appeals, sex appeals, and achievement appeals more favorably. These results are consistent with the Netemeyer et al. (1995) definition of vanity. Netemeyer et al. operationalized vanity in terms of concern for physical appearance, positive view of personal appearance, concern for achievement, and positive view of achievement. The fact that advertising appeals which emphasize these dimensions are viewed more favorably by people with high levels of vanity is consistent with current conceptualizations of the construct.

Brown and Stayman (1992) indicated that liking may be the best indicator of effectiveness for an ad. Focusing specifically on the advertisements used in this study, the clothing ad was rated very highly by people with high levels of vanity. Aad for this advertisement hada mean greater than 15, indicating that respondents rated it greater than 5 (on average) on a 7 point scale for each of the three Aad items. The ad elicited both strong appearance-related and sexual thoughts and for many of the respondents, it was very favorably reviewed.

One of the more interesting features of this research concerns the design of the study. The research reported in this paper not only verifies the findings’ cohesion with established literature but also examines the construct within a new contextCthat of advertising. Rather than provide simple correlations between two scales, the relationships were established by examining individual reactions to specific advertising appeals.

The results of this research are also highly applicable to advertising practitioners. Although appeals to appearance, sex, and achievement are common in advertising, it is still important to understand how consumers respond to such appeals. For example, when subjects were exposed to the clothing ad, respondents with high levels of vanity tended to record positive comments such as "sexy chick" and "what a babe," while respondents with low levels of vanity frequently made comments like "exploitation of women" and "tacky sex appeal." For the latter group, such advertising may in fact be damaging to brand image and have a negative impact on sales of the product. It is imperative that practitioners be aware of the effect that their advertisements have on consumer attitudes, choosing the placement of such ads wisely.

Methodologically, the results of this study also have implications for advertising researchers. In this particular study, it was assumed that attitudes toward a specific ad were directly related to the type of appeal used (i.e., appearance, sex, achievement). Use of a forced choice Aad measure would never have allowed definitive conclusions about this assumption to be made. By using the free-elicitation of thoughts technique, the validity of the assumption could be supported by the data provided by the respondents. The two techniques are quite clearly complementary ways of measuring consumer attitudes toward advertising. Although it takes subjects more time to fill out a questionnaire and researchers more time to content analyze responses, in the end researchers are left with much richer data and a better understanding of the phenomenon of interest.

Limitations and Future Research

As with any research effort, the study reported herein has limitations, and thus it is important to recognize the conditions that may limit the generalizability of the findings. The most significant limitation concerns the use of the student sample. Brown and Stayman (1992) noted that the use of student samples in research on advertising attitudes can have an upward-biasing effect on the strength of some results. Due to this study’s sample homogeneity, the use of student sample is recognized as a potential limitation when generalizing the results to other populations. Future research should address this issue and examine other non-students samples. However, this information has value in its own right for people marketing products to a student population.

An additional limitation of the study concerns the achievement appeal. Although the results of the study were significant and supported the hypothesis that people with high levels of vanity would evaluate achievement appeals more favorably, more reliable results may have been attained had a different achievement appeal stimuli been used. Less than 15 percent of the respondents had thoughts related to achievement after exposure to this ad. As a result, it may be beneficial to replicate this portion of the study with an advertisement that uses a stronger achievement appeal. Alternatively, achievement may be more difficult to convey in a print ad, compared to sex and appearance, so such an appeal may be better served through other media.

A final limitation concerns the setting in which the advertisements were viewed. Subjects were faced with forced xposure to the advertisements and had no other print contexts such as articles and editorials. Although forced exposure is generally accepted in advertising experiments (Stafford and Day 1995), it may put the subjects in an evaluative state. In addition, the classroom setting may have created a higher level of task involvement than may exist when subjects look at advertisements in more natural settings (e.g., the home). Although the subjects were encouraged to look at the advertisements in the way that they would normally read a magazine, this attempt to emulate a naturalistic setting cannot be guaranteed. Thus, even though this elevated level of task involvement poses no threat to the internal validity of the research findings, it does potentially limit the external validity of the findings.

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