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Beautiful mannequins that 'push buttons' may hurt sales: UBC study

Consumers with low self esteem reacted negatively to mannequins, according to a new marketing study.

Mannequins stand on display inside the Canada Boutique Bags warehouse on June 30, 2015.

Brian B. Bettencourt / Toronto Star Staff

Mannequins stand on display inside the Canada Boutique Bags warehouse on June 30, 2015.

Displaying merchandise on a perfect mannequin could actually discourage people from buying the clothes, a new UBC study has found.

Marketing professor and co-author of the report Darren Dahl found that consumers with low self esteem had a negative reaction to products when they were displayed on a mannequin. As a result, those consumers were less likely to purchase that product.

It’s something that could affect anyone, said Dahl.

“A lot of us experience low self esteem to some extent. We all have bad hair days,” he said.

“Those consumers actually have a negative reaction when they see beautiful mannequins on display.”

The findings, based on a series of studies with 430 participants, showed that even men had the same reaction to the female mannequins in the study.

“We think [the mannequins] trigger the importance of beauty and the importance of looking beautiful, because even men had a reaction to it,” he said.

“What that means to us is it isn’t just a social comparison. [It’s] not a woman saying oh she’s thinner than me, or she has better curves. It’s about the notion of beauty.”

Other researchers have found magazines, billboards, and other marketing material with images of beauty have a similar effect on consumers. Dahl says his study simply shows that mannequins are yet another item businesses need to be aware of when marketing their products.

“It’s just another example of something in the retail environment that can push buttons, for some people.”

Marketing professor Darren Dahl say most mannequins exemplify society’s high standard of beauty, with long legs and thin waistlines.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski/ Metro

Marketing professor Darren Dahl say most mannequins exemplify society’s high standard of beauty, with long legs and thin waistlines.

Most mannequins exemplify society’s high standard of beauty with long legs and thin waistlines. But Dahl also wanted to find out what happens when the mannequins are imperfect.  

He found that incomplete mannequins – those without a head or those without arms, for example – did not have the same effect on participant’s reaction to merchandise.

“When you mark the mannequin so it wasn’t perfect, or you use just the torso and don’t have the complete mannequin there, it takes away from that beauty symbol,” he said.

That detail could help retailers market their product more effectively and some businesses are already on the right track, said Dahl.

“The use of torso mannequins has grown over time. It’s cheaper and it represents the clothing item reasonably well and it's less threatening to consumers.”

Businesses need to understand that some consumers are sensitive to beauty messaging and at the end of the day, it helps their bottom line, he said.

But consumers have a responsibility as well, Dahl added.

“On the flip side, as consumers, be aware that these things do impact us – and to be an informed consumer, means you are empowered.”

The paper, called Standards of Beauty: The Impact of Mannequins in the Retail Context, was written by Jennifer Argo and Darren Dahl and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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