The Relationship of Advertising Model Attractiveness and Body Satisfaction to Intention to Purchase an Exercise Product

ABSTRACT - This paper investigates the relationship between respondents’ satisfaction with their body and the response to advertising of an exercise product using different levels of model attractiveness. Ninety females participated in an experiment at a large New Zealand university. While results revealed that dissatisfaction with a subject’s body is an important variable in intention to purchase a product, in this experiment direct influence of model attractiveness in advertising setting on the purchase intention was not found. However, results suggest that there is a strong association between level of a subject’s body satisfaction and the use of models in advertising as a basis of comparison by the subject.


Gail Harrison, Biljana Juric, and T. Bettina Cornwell (2001) ,"The Relationship of Advertising Model Attractiveness and Body Satisfaction to Intention to Purchase an Exercise Product", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 217-222.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 217-222


Gail Harrison, University of Otago, New Zealand

Biljana Juric, University of Otago, New Zealand

T. Bettina Cornwell, University of Memphis, U.S.A.


This paper investigates the relationship between respondents’ satisfaction with their body and the response to advertising of an exercise product using different levels of model attractiveness. Ninety females participated in an experiment at a large New Zealand university. While results revealed that dissatisfaction with a subject’s body is an important variable in intention to purchase a product, in this experiment direct influence of model attractiveness in advertising setting on the purchase intention was not found. However, results suggest that there is a strong association between level of a subject’s body satisfaction and the use of models in advertising as a basis of comparison by the subject.


Society places an immense emphasis on physical beauty: so much so that attractiveness plays an important role in nearly every human activity. Attractiveness is frequently used as a cue for inferring information about others (e.g. Patzer 1985, Martin and Kennedy 1993, Richins 1991) and self. Marketing academics have contributed to studies of physical attractiveness by investigating impact of product endorsers’ or advertising models’ attractiveness on people’s self-concept (e.g. Lasch 1978, Myers and Biocca 1992) and consumers’ response such as attitudes and purchase intent (e.g. Caballero, Lumpkin and Madden 1989). This study investigates the persuasive outcomes of using differing levels of model attractiveness in advertising, specifically examining the relationships between body satisfaction and intention to purchase exercise equipment.

In the following sections we review the literature on attractiveness in general, body image and self concept, physical fitness and perception of beauty and, lastly, advertising studies which focus on the physical attractiveness of a model.


Throughout the past few decades, social psychologists have gathered significant amounts of evidence on the importance human attractiveness carries in society. Attractiveness "is a well known, if covert, law of sociality" (Finkelstein 1991 p.179). Patzer (1985) comments that "people drastically underestimate the influence of physical attractiveness. Besides playing a role in practically every dimension of human activity, it affects every age group" (p.4). As Finkelstein comments, "embedded in it are the questions about the ways in which appearances matter and to whom" (p.179). While some studies have found that knowing the stimulus person appears to increase the level of attractiveness, other studies found that interaction with a person reduces the level of attractiveness (Walster 1971). "Physically attractive people.... are perceived to be more sexually warm and responsive, sensitive, kind, interesting, strong, poised, modest, sociable and outgoing than persons of lesser physical attractiveness" (Miller 1970; Baker and Churchill 1977; Berscheid and Walster 1974; Chaiken 1979). Berscheid and Walster (1974) further explain that attractive people possess more socially desirable personalities. Attractive people are thought to obtain more of the world’s material benefits and happiness as well. Furthermore, literature suggests the attractiveness stereotype is more important for females than males. For example, in Schulman and Hoskins’s (1986) study of the perceptual process in rating facial attractiveness for males and females, the authors found more discrimination, more extreme positive and negative ratings, and more consensus for female than for male faces. "The results uniformly support the view that facial appearance is a more heavily weighted element in the response to women than to men" (p. 141). Ashmore, Makhijani and Longo (1991) argue that the attractiveness stereotype is stronger for women due to the fact that attractiveness is more centred around women. The media respond and/or contributes by often portraying "women rather than men as decorative and sexual objects" (Eagly et al. 1991).

Patzer (1985) comments on physical attractiveness as being "an abstract construct which lacks absolute definitions and leads to erroneous generalities" (p.4). Perhaps defining attractiveness is hard because a common belief is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, studies have found that people judge attractiveness very similarly (Bryne, London and Reeves 1968; Miller 1970). As Sirgy (1982) highlights, studies usually show consistency in attractiveness rating regardless of the judge’s sex, age, geographic region, and social economic class.

A "truth by consensus" method is predominately administered within relevant studies to determine physical atractiveness. If a significant number of judges designate a person as physically attractive, then that person is defined as physically attractive (Berscheid and Walster 1974; Sirgy 1982). Repeatedly, studies conduct pre-tests evaluating physical attractiveness, and those models which elicit the most 'positive’ and consistent results are selected.

It is interesting to note that, as Sirgy (1982) mentions, most of the research on physical attractiveness has focused on facial attractiveness. Perhaps the rationale behind this concerns the extensive influence facial cues have on attractiveness (Mehrabian 1972 cited in Sirgy 1982). Additionally, Franzoi and Herzog (1987) highlight that studies that have investigated a body attractiveness used general body-shape preference (see Franzoi and Herzog 1987). The authors acknowledge the need to isolate more specific body parts which "most certainly figure in attractiveness judgements" (p. 20). With respect to the current research, both body and facial cues will be assessed in an overall assessment of the person and a measure of individual body parts will be used. Given the acceptance of the "truth by consensus" view of attractiveness, we will also utilize a respondent-base measure of attractiveness.


Society has evolved to emphasise the body as a superior component of one’s identity. As Belk (1988) comments, "our possessions are a major contributor to and reflections of our identities", and, arguably, our "body parts are among the most central parts of the extended self". Other authors have emphasised the importance of a person’s physical figure. They suggest "because we are permanently attached to our body parts, these body parts are expected to be more strongly cathected than material possessions that can be more easily acquired and discarded" (Csikszentimihalyi and Ochberg-Halton 1981 cited in Belk 1988).

Body image, as defined by Slade (1994), is "a loose mental representation of the body’s shape, form and size, which is influenced by a variety of historical, cultural and social, individual and biological factors, which operate over a varying time span" (p. 502). Slade equates one’s body image to residing within a certain band. The width of this band is influenced by the social and other factors mentioned above. "The result is a form of socialization that inspires a deeply internalized duty to discipline and normalize one’s body" (Sternthal 1995). One of the prominent factors includes the social cultural norms, particularly the thin body cult communicated through the media (Slade 1994). The media acts as a catalyst, encouraging people, particularly women, to focus heavily on appearance and their bodies.

Many authors discuss undesirable effects of such 'socialization’ and especially consequences of advertising. For example, Fallon and Rozin (1985) suggest that women become/are misinformed as a result of promotion of thinness through advertising by the diet industry. Studies have shown body image distortions can occur not only for those in society with eating disorders but also for ostensibly healthy individuals (Brodie, Slade and Riley 1991). Cooke (1994) acknowledges a widening gap between reality and the cultural ideal, seeing this as a deliberate and calculated way of making women buy unfillable fantasies.

Myers and Biocca (1992), in their article on the effects of television advertising on body image distortions in young women, emphasise that the content analysis of studies reveal that the media portray a steadily thinning ideal body image for women and that "advertisers explicitly target the body image of women in the marketing of food and exercise products" (Myers and Biocca 1992, p.109). At the same time, the authors state, the average young women’s perception of her body is 'fat’.


According to Freedman (1984), physical fitness is related to beauty stereotypes. Price (1992) remarks that "the eighties saw the advent of aerobics, but undoubtedly the 'craze’ of the nineties is with exercise equipment". The author concludes that the pressure to be slim has extended beyond dieting products to exercise equipment. It is no longer acceptable to solely be slim; now, the beauty- ideal demands that a person possess a muscular, curved body, in addition to being slender. Freedman (1984) comments on the additional pressure for women. He stated that the current fusion of fitness with beauty images has, for some young women, increased anxiety about their bodies. It is evident that physical fitness is supplementing the complexity of the physical attractiveness equation.

Tinning (1985) suggests there are a number of organisations that have vested interests in maintaining the cult of slenderness, including drug companies, owners of fitness clubs, the fitness fashion industry and manufacturers of exercise equipment. This author raises some powerful arguments criticising the physical education profession for not attempting to challenge the thin cult which plagues young people. Tinning states that "the profession would seem to have invested interest in maintaining the cult of slenderness rather than challenging it", for it "is in fact scared of biting the hand that feeds it" (p. 11).


The extent of "attractiveness based messages" and potential social consequences of advertising are signalled by Downs and Harrison’s (1985) analysis of American commercials. They examined over four thousand television commercials and discovered that, on average, one out of every 3.8 adverts involved this attractiveness stereotype in some manner. The authors predicted that children and adults would be exposed to an average of 14 attractiveness-based commercials per day. The authors highlighted the significance of this situation when they commented that "attractiveness stereotypes have permeated virtually the entire television advertising market, making television commercials powerful sources of the attractiveness stereotypes" (p. 17). The use of beauty types, which have been shaping stereotypes, has been fostered by the belief that model attractiveness "sells".

Consumers’ response to model attractiveness in advertising

Advertisers and some academics (Patzer 1985) share the belief that physical attractiveness of models can increase effectiveness of promotional and marketing activities. However, studies have shown that while attractive model (versus control with no model) adverts have an influence on evaluation of the adverts (Baker and Churchill 1977), they have generally little or no influence upon the recognition of brand name (Sirgy 1982) or purchase intention (e.g. Baker and Churchill 1977).

The unexpected findings of Caballero and Solomon’s study (1984) that respondents were more responsive to the low attractiveness condition when purchasing tissues led Caballero, Lumpkin and Madden (1989) to use the reinforcement theory of attraction of Byrne (1971) which suggests that the influence of an attractive source will depend on the product’s properties. They tested respondents’ willingness to purchase a videotaped advertised product with three differing levels of attractiveness. The authors failed to find a relationship between product properties and attractiveness, i.e. association between willingness to buy and attractiveness level. This study cnsidered low involvement, routine purchase’s of coffee and cologne. In hindsight, this was thought to be a limitation, as consumers’ frequency of purchasing these product categories may have influenced the results. They suggested that results may differ in the case of attractiveness-related product categories, such as cosmetics and fashion apparel.

Kamins (1990) found empirical evidence of 'attractiveness effect’ on the perceptions of adverts of the attractiveness-related products. When an attractive celebrity was associated with a product which affects attractiveness, eg. cosmetics, the source was viewed as more credible than was the case for an unattractive source. These results fit well with the social adaptation theory (Kahle 1984) which states that adaptive significance of information will determine its impact. An attractive female or male model may serve as an effective source of information for a product which is attractiveness related (Kamins 1990). The model may suggest to some consumers the idea that the use of the product will also enhance their physical attractiveness, just as it did for the model, thus providing adaptive information (Kamins 1990). Kanungo and Pang (1973) also found that the fit of a model to a product is an important variable in product advertisements as there appears to be an interaction effect between the two variables. For example, it was found that males are better suited in adverts for cars, and females for sofas. The fittingness of the gender of a model and the advertised product was thought to be reliant on the stereotypical image the product possesses. This study proved that the mere presence of a person will have an effect on a product category, and that some product categories fit better with a certain sex of the source.

Advertising, model attractiveness and body image

A few researchers have focussed on the influence of model attractiveness on people’s feelings about themselves, specifically women. Myers and Biocca’s (1992) study detected that when an average body shape was used in commercials, a female’s depression levels and body dissatisfaction decreased. Rather alarming was the author’s comments that results from this study suggest that watching even thirty minutes worth of television programming and advertising can alter a women’s perception of the shape of her body.

Through exploratory and experimental research, Richins (1991) assessed the short-term effects on young females of using idealised physically attractive models in advertising. This author’s research found evidence for the Social Comparison theory. The author discovered that after exposure to highly attractive people respondents rate more ordinary people as less attractive than they would normally do and their own self satisfaction decreases. "Results suggest that idealised images raised comparison standards for attractiveness and lowered satisfaction with one’s own attractiveness" (p. 71). The author argues that consumers’ dissatisfaction may be beneficial for marketers if it stimulates consumers to buy products which improve their physical appearance. She also suggests that researchers of the attractiveness effect should "look beyond measures of attitude toward the ad". In summary, analysis of the studies show that the boundaries and extent of relationship between attractiveness and outcomes are yet to be established.

It is apparent that there are still many unanswered questions regarding the effects of the beauty stereotype in advertising. Given the mixed results of past research we must ask firstly, whether, and in what context, attractive models are influential in advertising? If we believe that the influence of an attractive source will depend on the product’s properties (Caballero et al. 1989) then selection of exercise equipment, a high involvement, personal product which is perceived as an instrument to enhance the attractiveness of users would provide the right productBmodel 'fiting’B to investigate an "attractiveness effect".

Another reason to undertake this investigation was the concern about impact of exercise equipment advertising on target audience. Advertising in general has been accused of reinforcing consumers’ preoccupation with physical attractiveness (e.g. Downs and Harrison 1985) and creating sense of inadequacy (Pollay 1986; Martin and Kennedy 1993). These criticisms become more relevant in the case of the exercise equipment advertising which appears to target women’s dissatisfaction with their body. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to evaluate the effects within model attractiveness of exercise equipment advertising on the purchase intentions of young females. As suggested by the work of Richins (1991), we argue that dissatisfaction with the body and attractiveness of the source may have an impact on purchase intention, specifically that exposure to advertising containing an attractive model may lower female subjects’ satisfaction with their bodies and, consequently, increase intention to purchase exercise equipment. In order to accomplish this we formulated the following hypotheses:

H1: An attractive model will have a higher influence on intention to purchase of an exercise product than will an unattractive model. (Caballero, Lumpkin and Madden 1989)

H2: Women who are less satisfied with their bodies will be more ready to purchase exercise equipment. (Richins 1991)



The three mock advertisements used in this study were produced using computer graphics. The advertisements had similar copy and layout to advertisements for the product type which were obtained from in-store promotions. Three advertisements displayed the same exercise product and contained (i) an attractive model, (ii) an ordinary model and (iii) no model. Both models were a similar age to the respondents.


To ensure the two models were viewed as possessing different levels of attractiveness, a pre-test was conducted. In the pre-test twenty female students were randomly intercepted on the University campus to view a photograph of each of the models. The respondents evaluated on a seven-point semantic differential scale (1=very unattractive, 7=very attractive) the physical attractiveness of the two proposed models. This was similar to procedures undertaken in pre-test studies within the current literature (Kanungo and Pang 1973; Baker and Churchill 1977; Caballero et al. 1989; Kamins 1990; Richins 1991). The t-test indicated significant difference in mean scores of models’ attractiveness (t-value- 13.27, p<.001) with 3.45 assigned to the ordinary and 5.9 to the attractive model.


The between-subjects design utilised ninety undergraduate students enrolled in a marketing course at a large University in New Zealand. The decision to involve only young female respondents was justified because they have lower body satisfaction in general and, therefore, it is more appropriate to test their responses to attractiveness related advertisements (Linscott 1997); also, exercise equipment advertising is targeted to women. Prior to participation subjects were pre-screened to check they were not familiar with either of the female models featured n the mock ads.

Experimental procedure

The survey was administered in small groups ranging from ten to fifteen subjects. Individuals were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. To remain consistent the same instructions, which were modelled from Baker and Churchill’s (1977) study, were read to each group. The instructions were as follows:

We are interested in obtaining your opinions concerning particular test advertisements. You will be shown one advertisement on the overhead projector, after which you will be asked to fill out the questionnaire concerning your reaction to the advert and also the particular product depicted in the advert. When completing the questionnaire please do not interact or discuss your answers with anyone else in the room. Also, please note that your answers are anonymous as no name is required. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have at this point.

Each of the three advertisements was displayed on the overhead projector for a duration of 7 to 10 minutes. In addition, a laminated, colour paper copy circulated the room which allowed respondents to view the advertisement up close. The advertisement contained information about product functions and features. Every subject was given a separate questionnaire to complete. Willingness to purchase the exercise walker was assessed by asking respondents "If money was not an issue, would you purchase the product"? The seven-point scale was anchored by 'No, definitely not (1) and Yes, definitely (7). Subjects were asked to specify their reasons for intention, or lack of it, to purchase the product. Additionally, on the scale with the range from 1 (Never) to 6 (More than five times a week) they identified how often they exercise weekly. Our assumption being that subjects who have a more rigorous fitness regime would be more inclined to purchase an exercise product.



After respondents completed the first part of the questionnaire, they were instructed to rate attractiveness of the model on the scale from 1 (Very unattractive) to 7 (Very attractive). Since it was hypothesized that respondents’ satisfaction with their own body may affect purchase of an exercise walker, the Autonomy of Body Index was administered in accordance with other studies (e.g. Linscott 1997). Respondents were instructed to indicate their satisfaction on the scale from 1 (Very dissatisfied) to 7 (Very satisfied) with certain body parts, (namely chest, upper arms, stomach, hips, bottom and thighs) and summated mean score were calculated. Additionally, female respondents replied to three statements which allowed assessment of how often subjects consciously compare themselves with models featured in the advertisements (based on Richins 1991, see Table 1 for items used). While one of the statements directly relates to respondents’ dissatisfaction with their appearance caused by exposure to exercise equipment advertising, two statements measured how often respondents compare themselves with the models portrayed in ads.


Although the pre-test had indicated that the models did vary significantly on their attractiveness level, it was necessary to check whether respondents who participated in the study perceived the physical appearance of the two models. The ANOVA with ScheffT tests revealed that there was a significant, though not a large, difference between the treatment groups. The results revealed that the attractiveness level of the ordinary model was significantly lower (Mean score=4.93, p<0.05) than that of the attractive model (Mean score=5.30, p<0.05).


ANCOVA with purchasing intention as the dependent variable, model attractiveness as the independent variable, and the index of respondents’ body satisfaction and frequency of exercise as covariates was conducted (see Table 2). Significant effects were found only for the covariates, respondents’ satisfaction with their body (p<.001) and how often female students exercise (p<.01). The results indicate that neither the main effect due to a model’s attractiveness, nor 'attractiveness by body satisfaction’ interaction had significant influence on willingness to purchase an exercise walker. Although hypotheses 1 was not confirmed, the effects were in the expected direction, respondents were more willing to purchase from a more attractive model than from an ordinary model (see Figure 1).


The results of ANCOVA indicated that dissatisfaction with body parts had a significant relationship with respect to purchasing products at the 0.01 significance level, confirming our Hypothesis 2. Respondents who reported higher dissatisfaction with their body also expressed higher willingness to buy exercise equipment. It is interesting to note that the level of subjects’ satisfaction was not correlated with the frequency of exercise subjects undertake (Pearson -.063, p<.001) indicating that the level of dissatisfaction does not parallel with fitness activity.

Since an interaction effect of model attractiveness and perception of their own body was not significant, we could not infer that the level of model attractiveness had an influence on subjects’ satisfaction with their body parts and consequently on purchase intention. However, the Average Body Index was strongly correlated with the measures of "attractiveness effect" - women’s feelings of dissatisfaction with the way they look when exposed to exercise equipment ads (Pearson -.592, p<.001) and amount of comparison to models (Pearson -.355, p<.001. Though these findings indicate a lack of shortBterm effects of the attractiveness of advertising models, they also do suggest that the "attractiveness effect’ may be cumulative effect i.e. created by repetitive exposure to idealized advertising images, and/or affecting the consumers’ response in a more complex, indirect way.


The results reveal that respondents with lower body satisfaction were noticeably more predisposed to purchase exercise equipment. The research of Schouten (1991) on the symbolic consumption of plastic surgery was not utilized to ground the current work, but his findings are similar. Schouten found that a poor body image with respect to a specific body part motivated the consumption of aesthetic plastic surgery.

Though the women’s purchase intention of an exercise product increased when the model attractiveness as an advertising stimuli increased, the non significant effects do not provide evidence about immediate and/or direct influence of model attractiveness on purchase of an exercise product. These results were consistent with the findings of previous research. However, it is possible that respondents’ perceptions of attractiveness of two models didn’t differ enough for this effect to be noticeable. It is also possible that the quality or nature of the mock adverts may not have been as strong a stimuli as some professionally prepared ads. [Though only four respondents stated that the product as presented in the mock ads looked cheap, worse and less appealing than others they had seen.] Since the research design (see Eagly et al. 1991) of this study may have an impact on the size of the effects, further investigation of the relationship between the model attractiveness and product involvement levels is warranted. A more natural setting of an investigation than a classroom, exposure to infmercials as stimuli and different profile of respondents may lead towards different results. We believe that socio-demographic or personality characteristics of other target groups may have different moderating effects on the evaluative responses.





This study, however, offers an interesting unexpected finding. Though we did not hypothesize that subjects’ feeling of dissatisfaction would be enhanced when exposed to the exercise product advertising with a highly attractive model, one-way ANOVA revealed that the item measuring "feeling of dissatisfaction" differed among treatment groups (F-2.92, p<.05). Those respondents who were exposed to the attractive model indicated that ads for exercise equipment make them feel more dissatisfied with the way they look, than the group exposed to the advert with the ordinary model or advert with no model. Additionally, the strong correlation between the Average Body Index, and readiness to compare themselves with advertising models, as well as feeling of dissatisfaction with their overall appearance when exposed to exercise equipment adverts, suggests that influence of idealized advertising images on females’ satisfaction with their bodies and purchase intention is more complex. It may be that those consumers who are less satisfied with their body image compare themselves more with models. It may be also that exposure and comparison to idealized model images has a cumulative and long-lasting effect on feelings of dissatisfaction with subjects overall appearance (Richins 1991) and different body parts. Further investigation of the effects of body dissatisfaction on purchase activities of the exercise equipment is needed. Research needs to question the impact and ethical considerations of the "look good" exercise equipment advertising on vulnerable groups.


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Gail Harrison, University of Otago, New Zealand
Biljana Juric, University of Otago, New Zealand
T. Bettina Cornwell, University of Memphis, U.S.A.


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