It’s such a logical idea to encourage a woman to buy clothes by displaying them on someone who actually looks like her, but as we know in the fashion industry this is as foreign a concept as actually using a woman of color for a magazine cover as though somehow white women couldn’t possibly be the only ones interested in high fashion.

As it turns out, the case for using “real women” to sell clothes to consumers isn’t just backed by popular opinion or a sentiment of wanting to see someone like yourself in an ad campaign, research shows that shoppers are more likely to buy clothing when they see it on someone who actually resembles them—be that in body shape, skin color, or age.

Modeling agency founder and academic Ben Barry recently tested this novel “real woman” idea using eight ads for the same Diane Von Furstenberg dress. The ads were identical in concept and art direction, but featured models of different ages, body size, and race. Barry randomly selected two of the ads, showed them to women, and simply asked which ad made them want to buy the dress, and here’s what he found:

  • When the model shown was the woman’s size, their intent to buy increased 200%. In the subgroup of respondents over size 6, that intent increased 300%.

  • Black women were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model.

  • Women increased their purchase intentions by more 175% when they saw models who reflected their age.

When you look at these results from 2,500 women across the U.S. and Canada, you’d think the fashion industry would be having an aha moment, but instead we’ll likely be left with what we’ve always been given–special features. Plus-size issues, age issues, black issues—all those special editions we get excited over at the time but don’t really want because we’d prefer to just be incorporated as part of the norm. Responses from the women surveyed expressed that same feeling, while also pointing out that we no longer want to be sold fashion based on our insecurities, which is the tried ad true approach that currently stands.

If we were talking about cellulite or wrinkle cream, okay, show me how to get rid of it. But trying to push a dress with a woman 20 years younger and 20 pounds lighter than the average American doesn’t get retailers far. You can’t step back in time, although some women like to with the way they dress, and by the time you’d lose the 20 pounds to fit in the dress you want it would be out of season. So again we have to keep asking why is it designers are more inclined to sell fantasies than fashionable clothes consumers can and will actually buy?

Maybe they’re the ones with the hangups about age and size and skin color and they refuse to see, not the direction America is going in, but where we already are. In these thrifty times, I’d think clothing designers, retailers, and advertisers would be willing to give anything a try to get more sales, but all they keep doing is tweaking the fantasy rather than selling us the reality that we can still look good at 50, with 50 more pounds on our bodies than we need, and with a skin tone that isn’t always highly regarded in society. I’d think the backlash alone every time they refuse to recognize the full spectrum of women would be enough to spark a change in approach, but perhaps designers are content with dwindling profit margins. Those narrowly defined beauty boats may be floating now but eventually they will sink as consumers begin to step up more and more and demand proper representation for their retail dollars.

Why do you think designers won’t cater to consumers with the type of models they use?

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