Does anyone actually buy the clothes that show up on runways a few times per year? People do, and the thinking goes that in order to sell them, models need to look thin. Some cultural advocates have insisted that overweight women who look more 'real' - 65 percent of Americans are overweight - will sell more clothes, but that is in defiance of marketing principles which have shown that people buy on what they want to look like, not what they do look like.

A new survey says that also has limits and too much suspension of disbelief leads to fewer sales, and so more average-sized models, a size 4 rather than a size 0, will sell more clothes to consumers. Dr. Xuemei Bian of Kent Business School and colleagues considered the impact of using average and zero-sized models in marketing campaigns for both established and fictitious new fashion brands.

In three studies, the researchers asked women aged 18-25 which size of model they preferred. The studies also considered the role the women’s self-esteem played in their preference. Bian and her team found that when it came to established brands, average-sized models could be used interchangeably with size zero models, with little or no impact on product or model evaluation.

However, in the case of the ‘new’ fashion brands, the women in the studies preferred the use of average-sized models over those sized zero. This was because the women had no prior knowledge of the brand on which to base their judgment on. The research found that this preference was even more pronounced among the women taking part in the studies who considered themselves to have low self-esteem.

Tina Fey is not a size 0, but new results show she will sell more clothes than Elle MacPherson (above).

Bian said, ‘The issue of fashion industry use of skinny models is a very controversial and we have even seen France’s parliament considering a ban. Our research shows that the fashion industry has nothing to fear from using average-sized models in it marketing campaigns, and could even find that it sells more of its products by doing so.’

Citation: Xuemei Bian, Kai-Yu Wang, 'Are size-zero female models always more effective than average-sized ones? Depends on brand and self-esteem!', upcoming in the European Journal of Marketing.