International Body Image and the Issues with Purely Quantitative Marketing Research
There is little doubt that quantitative research has been slowly and steadily taking over the social sciences in the past century. There are some valid reasons for this, and whilst I find myself rooting for qualitative methods there is a stone cold logic to numbers that seems to comfort researchers. In marketing research however, the dominance of quantitative studies perplexes me, not because I believe that it is not useful (It is a critical source of information), but because you can make completely erroneous assumptions (and possibly expensive errors!) by focusing solely on the numbers.
International body confidence and the issue of cultural understanding
As I was looking around the Internet, I saw a Daily Mail article proclaiming Mexico to be the most body confident country in the world. Intrigued I decided to read the study (Done by GFK, a large and prestigious market research company) with the results as follows:
Mexico tops the chart, with a 29% completely satisfied whilst Japan is at the bottom and whilst it is interesting to note that Mexico is one of the most obese countries in the world whilst japan one of the slimmest, personal confidence need not be tied to weight. What you might also notice is that there is a high representation of Latin and Hispanic countries in the top 10 spots, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Spain. You wouldn’t be surprised to assume that from those results, weight loss or body changing products might feel that there is little market across them, they would of course be wrong.
Further reading the study showed me that they asked all respondents one question ”How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your looks?’’ Whilst I believe there are inherent methodological issues with resuming a complex construct such as body confidence to one question, as well as having a question phrased in a positive and negative way, lets just for the sake of this article take their question at face value and assume that everyone understood it correctly and responded on their looks.
The issue I have with the study is the fact that its results are very unlikely to represent actual body confidence, and also unlikely to understand where this body confidence stems from. As a veritable book could be written on each country, for the sake of brevity I will focus on some specific examples for underlying cultural forces that shaped the answers. Latin culture, for example, is characterized by what some sociologists call machismo, which “requires individual men to make a display of physical power and social domination, and to disdain any feminine, or supposedly feminine, traits” (Leiner 1994, p. 79). This machismo is a trait that was inherited by colonial Spaniards and among other things it was suggested as a form of control for the male body (Hardin 2002). This machismo culture would have indeed made male respondents to make a positive assertion about their bodies (In their minds, influenced by machismo culture, a lack of confidence would have been seen as a feminine trait) therefore tainting their responses and making the answers irrelevant.
For a marketeer being aware of this powerful cultural force and how it works is crucial, as it is a driver in the behaviour of consumers. Macho culture, for example can explain for Mexican male consumers’ taste in fashion or other goods, and the use of this underlying cultural force can make for powerful marketing. To uncover how this type of cultural forces shape behaviours however, a researcher needs to have a level of granularity and freedom in analyses that is difficult to achieve in a quantitative study. This is especially the case as competing influences can affect how these forces are expressed; macho culture in Mexico is not the same as in Argentina. Despite the similarities between the countries, and understanding where there is cross over between cultural influences and where there is not is critical for marketing managers when designing efficient and hard-hitting campaigns across the continent.
I used machismo as an example to illustrate this point, however it is only one of many influences across cultures that would have affected the answer. Turning our attention to the ‘least confident’ country on the study Japan, the study is ignoring important traits of Japanese society. Japanese, for example is a vague language; certainty is not common within communication. It is not uncommon when having a conversation with a Japanese person to hear the word ‘maybe’ several times. Likewise in Japanese society, traits such as vanity and narcissism, which are common in Latin American cultures, are thoroughly frowned upon. Japanese proverbs such as ‘the nail that stands out gets hammered’ illustrate this type of mentality, knowing that it is therefore not surprising how the Japanese participants responded; this is however not necessarily how they truly feel about themselves.
Through this brief analysis my aim was to illustrate the issue with making assertions out of purely quantitative data. Our identity, our behaviour and our consumption of goods and services are thoroughly influenced by culture, and whilst this might always not be evident at first sight, are always there. This is where a strong qualitative focus can bring out an understanding of behaviours much more difficult to access qualitatively.
Octavio Murekian is Toucan Insights’ Co-Founder and Research Director and a PhD Candidate in Consumer Behaviour from the University of London.
Hardin, M. (2002). ‘Altering Masculinities: The Spanish Conquest and the Evolution of the Latin American Machismo’. International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies (2002) 7: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1013050829597
Leiner, M. (1994).’Sexual politics in Cuba: Machismo, homosexuality, and AIDS. Boulder,