I was taught early in life -- primarily by lots of 1980s comedy flicks that haven't held up particularly well over the decades -- that being beautiful can give you an edge in life. Even if you're not a child of the '80s, you've certainly been subconsciously force-fed the same concept over the years by reams of marketing featuring airbrushed faces and figures.
Research has returned conflicting findings on how physical attractiveness can impact certain interactions. It's been shown that attractive servers are tipped more in restaurants and that good-looking CEOs can boost a company's stock price. One study found that attractiveness had a negative correlation to adults feeling empathy for children in need, while a landmark 1979 study found that attractiveness was a boon for men seeking to advance their careers, but actually worked against women looking for a promotion.
Research published recently in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services suggests that, at least in certain sectors, "beautiful is better" isn't a universal truth.
In a series of three studies, Zhang and her colleagues investigated how consumers respond to being helped by service employees of various levels of attractiveness, based on earlier research defining beauty.
First, participants were read an account of having dinner out and asked to look at an image of the hypothetical waiter, whose likeness had been edited to appear more or less attractive. Participants then rated the attractiveness and likability of the server, how "psychologically close" they felt to him or her, customer satisfaction, and service quality.
"If they felt distance from the waiter, they were more likely to give him or her poor marks," Zhang explained. "Furthermore, we found that people who thought the server was attractive but were themselves not good-looking -- using our objective beauty assessment -- were more likely to feel distance."
A second, similar study found that people who considered themselves less attractive felt more distant from hypothetical attractive flight attendants. Interestingly, participants who believed there is not a connection between beauty and skill still rated more beautiful attendants' service as lower quality.
The last study involved customers at a mall who had actual face-to-face interactions with a service employee. Again, the encounter with a beautiful server was less pleasant for people who thought of themselves as less attractive and they also reported feeling more psychological distance from the employee.
"So in a world that admires and hires beautiful people, our research suggests there's a potential downside, at least in the service sector," Zhang concluded.
It's important to note here that this research relies on previous findings linking physical attractiveness in large part to facial and other physical symmetries. (As a person married to a beautiful individual with a once-broken, definitely asymmetrical and still gorgeous nose, I'm not totally sold on the notion of an objective measure of beauty.)
Still, the data Zhang and her colleagues collected does tell a story.
The takeaway for brands and businesses can be summed up pretty simply. You might assume that hiring more beautiful employees, especially salespeople, will make customers more likely to interact with your brand or buy your product. But the research suggests that rather than trying to cultivate a certain image and risk alienating many consumers, it's probably better to just keep it real.
Zhang highlighted the famous case of Abercrombie and Fitch, which intentionally recruited attractive employees and eventually faced a public backlash. American Apparel also comes to mind--the clothing company had its own controversially strict rules about its employees' physical appearance, which would later play a role in sexual harassment lawsuits filed against founder Dov Charney.
As a rule of thumb, you could determine the commonalities among your clientele and work to recruit employees that better mirror that cross-section of people. In other words, strive to hire people who look more like your customers. Vintage-inspired retailer Modcloth has taken the novel approach of casting its own employees rather than models to pitch its lines, while J. Crew has also eschewed using models in favor of more regular folks in its campaigns. Non-clothing, non-retail brands including Dove, Spotify, Bumble and Chevrolet have also tried similar approaches in their own marketing.
"Managers should give more attention to low attractive individuals and fight against appearance discrimination in recruitment," the new study concludes.