Happy young designer working with photographs on multiple computers in the workplace

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For many of us, the word “influencer” conjures up a certain image: a thin, beautiful woman who leads her glamorous, best life and plays in front of more than a billion active Instagram accounts. Like the supermodels of the 90s and the reality TV stars of the 00s before her, today’s influencer represents the “thin ideal” that millions of young women look up to. And since Millennials and Gen Z represent more than $ 1.5 trillion in purchasing power – which will only increase as Gen Z ages – marketers have sought to capitalize on that idealization.

It has long been known that the most successful influencers for marketers – those who drive the most buying intentions – are those who represent the “thin ideal.” In our recent research, my colleagues and I have determined that this is correct.

Our hypothesis? Conventional wisdom was wrong.

Studies have shown in the past that physically attractive models in advertisements are more convincing and likeable than less attractive models, the attractiveness of which often influences product preference and purchase intention.

With the rise of the “Thin Ideal” influencer, however, there has been increasing research into what effects their portrayal has on women. The average woman is now overweight and taller than 14. Research has shown that exposure to the “thin ideal” in the media actually leads to negative effects such as thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction and self-objectification, and eating disorders below other.

Women of different sizes in bikinis dancing together

Full length of women of different sizes in bikinis dancing together over brown background. Multiethnic … [+] Women in swimwear have fun.

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To combat the negative effects of the “thin ideal” on consumers, body-positive activists spoke out. As their popularity grew, they became influencers themselves. Unlike “Thin Ideal” influxers who earned followers through self-promotion, these “body positive” influencers encouraged their followers to use hashtags like #bodypositivity and #bopo en masse on Instagram, and to use pictures, quotes and captions to drive acceptance of all body types and sizes to support.

These two influencer approaches to publication can be classified as “extrinsic” (posting for self-promotion and for personal gain) and “intrinsic” (posting for altruistic reasons). Research has shown that in an extrinsic motivational scenario, consumers can assume that influencers are working towards improving their own image, while in an intrinsic motivational scenario, consumers believe that influencers are genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of their followers. The same research found that extrinsic (ie, egocentric) behaviors negatively affect purchase intent compared to intrinsic behaviors.

Person viewing someone's photo gallery shared on social media

Person sitting at home looking at someone’s photo gallery shared on social media.

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Our hypotheses?

1. Using the hashtag “#sizezero” in an influencer post increases the perceived attractiveness compared to the hashtag “# size14” …

BUT

2.… The use of the hashtag “# size14” in an influencer post increases the intention to buy compared to the hashtag “#sizezero”.

In the two studies with my co-authors, Professor Charles R. Taylor and Mivena Panteqi, more than 400 female participants with an average age in their mid-thirties were recruited to test our hypotheses. We visually manipulated the influencer’s size, as shown in the picture where a swimsuit is sold, to reflect two sets of visual stimuli (small versus large) and the small state with #sizezero and the large state with # size14 in the Adjusted description of the contribution. The effects of the Body Mass Index (BMI) were checked for possible confusion.

Our results?

We found that while participants perceived the size 0 influencer to be more attractive and perfect than the size 14 influencer, their intention to purchase the swimsuit was higher for the size 14 influencer. This is in line with the “thin ideal”, according to which smaller models are still seen as cheaper in terms of the desired attractiveness.

The most important finding of our research, however, is that cheap “thin ideal” perceptions don’t necessarily influence buying intentions. We find that consumers perceive smaller, thin ideal influencing factors that address extrinsic motivations (e.g., standing out from the crowd) to be more favorable. Conversely, it has been found that larger, “body-positive” influencers who address intrinsic motivations (e.g., hugging your real self) are more effective. Part of the reason lies in what consumers expect from influencers, and the extent to which the influencers are expected to be perfect.

As marketers continue to search for ways to get the highest ROI, this study offers helpful insights into how to best leverage Instagram’s growing influencer population to reach their core audiences and encourage buying intent among them. While consumers still find “perfect” influencers to be more physically attractive, in reality these influencers seem too good to be true. If your influencer is driving a lot of traffic to your website but not converting, check out what motivational story you tell in your message.