Marketing Professor Finds New Connections Between Body Image and Spending

Posted: March 29, 2017

New research by Adam W. Craig, assistant professor of marketing in University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, finds new parallels between idealized body images in advertising and consumer spending.

Craig, along with co-author Marisabel Romero (Colorado State University), will have their article published in the June 2017 issue of Journal of Consumer Research. According to the study, “Costly Curves: How Human-like Shapes Can Increase Spending,” even subtle reminders of idealized bodies can encourage overweight consumers to overspend.

“In our research, we show that exposure to body cues (i.e., shapes) can have unintended consequences on seemingly unrelated behavior, such as spending,” write the authors. “We demonstrate that seeing a thin (vs. wide) human-like shape leads high-body-mass-index (BMI) consumers to make more indulgent spending decisions.”

The authors found that mere reminders of the thin-body ideal can cause overweight consumers to feel worse about their own abilities, including less capable of managing their spending impulses. In general, when consumers feel less capable, they tend to show lower motivation for control.

In one study where consumers were shown an object with a thin, human-like shape (much like a Coca-Coca bottle), high-BMI consumers were more likely to buy a higher-priced, Fiji-brand bottle of water than a lower-priced, generic-brand bottle. Another study on shopping found that high-BMI consumers were more willing to take on credit card debt to pay for something they wanted after seeing a thin shape because they felt less capable of managing their spending impulses.

These findings suggest that consumer advocates should be wary of reinforcing the link between weight, self-control, and financial achievement, as doing so can be counterproductive for consumers trying to control their behavior. The implications are particularly important given the negative consequences such messages could have on consumer debt and spending.

“Our studies confirm that body shapes are powerful cues that can influence consumer spending preferences,” Craig and Romero conclude. “Marketers have long used slender models, forms and designs to promote economic and social benefits. However, their design decisions might lead overweight consumers, who lack identification with idealized standards, to make more indulgent spending decisions.”