Can Thick Women Sell More Cars?

Behold: a car advert, featuring an attractive woman

It’s the oldest trick in the book – pairing a desirable babe with a thing you can buy. Classical conditioning at it’s finest – and apparently, it’s very effective at selling cars. Mainly to men, I think. But who actually decided that this particular woman was the right girl for the job? On what basis do car manufacturers decide that one girl, above all others, will sell the most cars, or promote the brand better than any other?

Every Body is Different

Take a look at the following pictures. I understand that we’re not talking super-model sexy here, but think about how attractive you find each of them. If you had to choose, which would you say has the “ideal” body?

Swami and Tovee (2012) showed these pictures, which form the basis of the Photographic Figure Rating Scale (Swami, Salem, Furnham & Tovee, 2008) to two groups of males. One group was put through a 20 minute task called the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which is designed to evoke a stress response, before being asked to evaluate and rate each picture for physical attractiveness; which woman they thought had the “ideal” body; and which were the largest and thinnest figures they found physically attractive. The control group simply had to wait in silence for 20 minutes, at which point they too evaluated the figures on the same dimensions.

The researchers found that participants who were exposed to stress rated figure 5 as the “ideal” body, whereas non-stressed individuals rated figure 4 as the “ideal”. Furthermore, stressed participants rated figures 5, 6, 7 and 8 all higher than non-stressed participants did. The researchers explain this preference in light of the environmental security hypothesis, which suggests that during stressful times humans develop a preference for those with mature physical characteristics.

So what does this have to do with Consumer Psychology?


Picture your typical hard-working city-living young professional. He makes a fair bit of money, but it doesn’t come easy. He works long hours and is under a lot of pressure, and stress is an occurrence.

Outside of office hours he wants to enjoy his time. He wants a good car, nice clothes, maybe an expensive watch, and premium holidays to make the most of the breaks he gets. He has money, and he doesn’t mind spending a bit extra to get exactly what he wants. He would be a great person to try and sell luxury goods to.

Here are the types of adverts that I would say target this demographic:

Maybe, rather than going down this well trodden path, a company targeting this particular demographic of men might consider using a woman with a curvier, more mature body… in short… a “thick” girl.

In terms of celebrities which might embody this idea, an example would be Monica Bellucci – curvy body, eternally youthful (she’s past her forties in this picture), and I would say, not the typical type of woman you might see in your average luxury car advert

Such campaigns could potentially be focussed in inner cities, where the number of people who fall into that demographic would be highest. It would be a bold move, but it could potentially be pretty memorable. Furthermore, the scientific evidence suggests it would appeal to a certain demographic of people who these products are geared towards.

Future research in aid of further segmentation

While this study only tested White British participants, future research could test participants in other countries to evaluate the extent to which stress impacts on sexual preferences in other emerging markets such as China, Japan, Brazil and Russia. This would help companies use the most effective models in their advertising of luxury goods in these countries.

This study also only examined male sexual preferences. Investigating whether females under stress prefer males with more mature features would also be a worthwhile research question. If this does prove to be the case, then this would provide a basis for effective marketing to female workers in similar high stress jobs.

The shape of things to come

This is just one example of how I think Psychological Research should be being used to inform the marketing of products and brands. Over the coming weeks I aim to explore this theme further, and hope to find other innovative ways in which scientific research can inform more effective marketing strategies.

  1. Great Blog. Catchy topic, interesting facts, and very enjoyable to read!

  2. I find that this is a great application of research.

    This research may be applicable to other demographics as higher levels of stress were also associated with lower income classes and areas (Aneshensel, 1992; Harburg et al., 1973). Hence, body types like body size number 5 in Swami and Tovée’s (2012) study may also have more appeal to people with lower income compared to the other body sizes used, which may be good for advertising cheaper cars. Higher stress was too found in students during an exam than during the week before that exam (Spangler, 1997), which could suggest that there are other demographics where stress levels vary throughout the year. Therefore, the timings of different advertisements types may be worth factoring in.


    Aneshensel, C. S. (1992). Social stress: Theory and research. Annual Review of Sociology, 18, 15-38. Retrieved from

    Harburg, E., Erfurt, J. C., Hauenstein, L. S., Chape, C., Schull, W. J., & Schork, M. A. (1973). Socio-ecological stress, suppressed hostility, skin color, and black-white male blood pressure: Detroit. Psychosomatic Medicine, 35, 276-296. Retrieved from

    Spangler, G. (1997). Psychological and physiological responses during an exam and their relation to personality characteristics. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 22, 423-441. Retrieved from

    Swami, V., & Tovée, M. J. (2012). The impact of psychological stress on men’s judgements of female body size. PLoS ONE, 7. Retrieved from

  3. jamesuh said:

    Great piece, lad. Have you considered, however, that automobiles (and the purchase of them) embody the aspirational goals of a great deal of fellas (and lassies), and how our aspirations differ from what we want now? Thus, they are not merely motivated by what they feel is subjectively attractive, but what they feel society in general objectively holds to be desirable. Festinger (1957) might label this ‘dissonance’, which is a mentally uncomfortable experience and would motivate us to arrange our attitudes or behaviours in a manner that conforms.

    If consumers are to associate with a car manufacturer by commiting to the purchase of one of their cars, they are not just commiting to purchase that model, but the values and aspirations that that manufacturer/brand endorses, and those that its percieved clientele champion.

  4. I think you make an excellent point, James. As you highlight, a key component of aspirational marketing is to present this ideal that we are supposed to strive towards. In fact, you’ve probably explained why see so little variety in the type of woman you’d typically see on a luxury car advert – we can’t have more than one ideal…can we??

    Taking a step away from that ideal could be seen as a risky move. As such you can see why car manufacturers would be so reluctant to explore the avenue that I’ve suggested – for fear of permanently damaging the brand – or being seen as a less prestigious car– or perhaps (if we’re looking at this in terms of societal ideals) – the man who goes for second best. When you consider what a big investment a car is, perhaps manufacturers feel they cannot afford to place themselves outside of this aspirational ideal.

    However, if every car manufacturer is trying to pitch a fantasy to the viewer, how are they differentiating themselves? Perhaps there is room for a different approach. Certainly it could be a risky campaign. But as I suggest in my blog, I’m convinced that the women chosen in your typical car ad campaign isn’t really chosen based on any kind of research evidence. In fact, the only recurring and consistent indicator of male preference (also true across cultures) is the 0.7 waist to hip ratio – and you can achieve that whether you’re perceived to be skinny (Kate Moss), or curvy (Kelly Brook). In fact, this optimal ratio activates reward and appetitive centers in the male brain regardless of BMI (Platek & Singh, 2009).

    It’s interesting to consider where the skinny woman as the aspirational ideal came from. I would have said super-models – and the crazy thing is these women were chosen to sell clothes to women – not to be sexually appealing to men. Has advertising targeting males been cross polluted by these ideals?

    Ultimately, you raise a great question – are these women chosen because they are the most attractive to men – or are because they are an illusive aspirational ideal? I suspect from your reply you would say the latter – but if men find larger women more attractive, especially under times of stress, surely the pairing of the product and such women would make the product more desirable, and instil positive feelings and desire for the car, and increase the likelihood of a purchase at a later date?

  5. A nice blog, and interesting debate going on. I do like the concept behind what your suggesting, Marketing through ‘real’ women, and not ‘model’ women. However I do also see Jamesuh’s point about potential cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) due to the apsirational reasoning for buying expensive, fast cars.

    An area where this method of marketing could work is on the ‘middle man’, or the ‘ford man’ so to speak. For the middle of the road consumer who is looking to buy a new car, they may automatically be turned off by advertising that includes model women as they may consider the car out of their league, or too flash or them. Something which would also create dissonance for consumers, so maybe brands like ford etc could become more in tune with the customers by having a less aspirational, and more attainable man/woman in their advert.

  6. Great blog and some good points made. It is interesting then why a company live Dove decided to go the other way with their choice of models for recent marketing campaign for their soaps? With so many brands associating themselves with models to create a association with the consumer that ‘you could look like this’. Why would dove go the other way?

  7. Excellent question consumerscientist! As Bryan highlighted in his blog, ‘men are perfect already, apparently’, and as research suggests, viewing pictures of same-gender models lowers the body-esteem of both males and females (Grogan, Williams & Conner, 1996). This effect is significantly greater in women (so although both sexes experience reduced body esteem, women see greater reductions).

    So if you’re trying to sell a product to someone (women in particular), making them feel bad about themselves might be seen as a questionable strategy. However, it could be argued that the beauty industry thrives off this effect, as women are driven to buy more beauty products to make them feel better about their bodies.

    We also have to consider that cars and Dove skincare products have fundamentally different roles in people’s lives. Adverts targeting young professional males, driving them towards aspirational goals such as buying expensive cars often play on a desire for greater social status. These are expensive investments, made fairly infrequently.

    Skin care products on the other hand are often used on a daily basis, and are far more affordable to a greater range of women (as opposed to the more expensive end of the beauty market). As such, their campaigns need to target women everywhere (the ‘every woman’ if you like). This is the same principle that theconsumerinthewindow was suggesting when he said curvy women could be used to sell cars to the ‘middle man’, who might be turned off by advertising featuring women too far out of their league, or men who are so perfect that it makes the viewer feel inadequate.

    In light of this, I think it makes sense that Dove went this way…but the question remains…will a more expensive, aspirational brand every do the same?

  8. M said:

    Monica is skinny and lacks curves. Her body goes almost straight up and down. big tits aren’t curvy. nice skinny shaming too.

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