Age, Sex and Race in Modeling

The issue of race comes up a lot in discussions of modeling, and a lot of misinformation gets written about it. Age and sex (gender, to misuse the term as it is commonly misused) don't get discussed much at all, but they should.

 

Fashion

 Age: 

            For the more visible fashion models (those competing for editorial fashion assignments, high end runway work and fashion campaigns – the ones we think of as “fashion models”) age is a very strong factor in selection.  Prime time for entry into the industry is age 16-18, although some models as young as 13 or as old as 21 are accepted into major fashion agencies.  In some places fashion models must be at least 16 to work.  Many agencies have policies of not accepting new fashion models over 21, and some specify as low as 19.

            That category of fashion model, if successful, can work into her early twenties sometimes.  A few fashion models – those at the top of the industry, can work into their thirties and beyond.  But for those very few, it is because they have ceased being “fashion models”, and have become brands, or celebrities, whose face is widely recognized.  Many of them are called by the over-used term “supermodel”.

            There are other types of models who work in the fashion industry – those that we don’t normally think of when we use the term “fashion model” – who can be well outside those age restrictions.  Catalog models (“commercial fashion” models) can be of nearly any age, certainly well into their 40s, and include children.  Fit models also can work while much older than the “fashion models” we described above. 

Race:

If jobs were given to models on the basis of their distribution in the population, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But advertisers are less interested in population numbers than in the portion of the market for their product that each ethnic group represents, and in how to reach that portion with their message.  The fashion world has struggled with these issues.

Fashion advertising through the 1970s and beyond mostly used Caucasian models.  There are many reasons.  One undoubtedly was racial stereotyping.  Fashion ads are designed to create an association between the brand and whatever people aspire to.  Designers viewed white women as “higher class,” setting the pattern for emulation by others, so it was natural, if not desirable, that they should choose white models almost exclusively.  They reasoned that if their labels could achieve prestige and desirability, the ethnic minorities would be brought along with everyone else.

Another reason was the perception that African-Americans were not a significant market for high-end apparel, despite their numbers in the population.  It remains true that the median household income of African Americans is substantially less than Caucasians, a fact not lost on the fashion houses.  Only in relatively recent times have two additional demographic facts become understood:  African Americans spend nearly a third more than Caucasians on apparel as a percentage of their income; and African Americans tend to form brand loyalties much earlier and more strongly than Caucasians.  As the advertising industry came to appreciate those facts, the African-American market segment seemed suddenly more important.

There remains the problem of how to reach it.  African-Americans are hardly a unitary bloc when it comes to purchasing power.  Urban/Hip Hop lines like Baby Phat and Sean John may appeal to a part of it, but that portion of African-American consumers who might purchase Calvin Klein, Donna Karan (or even Tracy Reese) is little impressed by the hip-hop approach.  There remains a debate as to whether it is best to advertise through African-American oriented magazines and media, or through more general-interest media.

In the 1990s there was an increasing trend to use African Americans in magazine editorials and covers and as runway models.  High-profile models like Imam and Tyra Banks showed that black models can be attractive to white audiences, and models like Alek Wek have changed the perception that black models have to have light skin and European features to be seen as beautiful.  Even so, although there are no authoritative numbers available, the perception remained that African-Americans were under-used by fashion designers.

Since the turn of the century, the fashion industry has been captivated by the availability of Eastern Europeans, who come from countries with limited economic opportunities, and are highly motivated to become models in the West.  Designers have gravitated to using them, and other models like them, overwhelmingly.  The proportion of black and other minority fashion models in campaigns and runways has dropped as a result.

Designers are not the only important source of fashion advertising, though.  If the designer sets the “national” tone for use of models, retailers set the regional and local pattern.  In recent decades they have become much more willing to use minority models in their advertising, although the distribution changes depending on the local demographic.  A mall store in Bangor, Maine is more likely than one in Atlanta to use Caucasians in its advertising.  But overall, from about the middle of the 1990s on the number of African Americans used in retailer fashion ads has approached their distribution in the population.  There has been considerable commentary about this in the press, and some backlash.  In all probability, the trend in models will change before long, as it always does.

The situation is different in the other “major minorities”.  Hispanics are more fragmented than African Americans, since they may share a common home country language, but they come from many countries and different cultures.  Hispanic is also not a “race” and many Hispanics are cross-identified (or see themselves) as Caucasian.  Finally, even though they are numerically about the same as African Americans, they spend a smaller percentage of their household income on apparel, and their brand identification is weaker.  It has been easy for advertisers to treat them as simply another kind of Caucasian, perhaps advertise in Spanish-language media, and leave it at that.

Asians present a different problem.  As a group they represent only a small portion of the US population (roughly 3%).  But there really is no such thing as an “Asian group”.  They are primarily Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, and each of those differs markedly from the others.  What you do to target one with advertising doesn’t work well for the others, and using a Korean model may not improve your label’s desirability with Japanese.

There are other issues as well.  Asians tend to be shorter than Caucasians, and to have relatively long torsos and short arms and legs.  That is precisely the opposite of the “fashion model” mold.  If Caucasian and African fashion models are something of a rarity, recruiting slim, 5’10” long-legged Asian girls as models has proved a challenge for the agencies.  It’s hard to have a large number of them on the roster – and when they are there to chase 1-3% of the market, it’s hard to justify the effort.  Needless to say, fashion advertising tends not to overachieve in using Asian models.

 

Commercial Print

 

As late as the early 1990s, studies of print advertising found no more than 3-4% of models in ads were African-American.  That changed greatly in the decade that followed.

In the USA, national print ads are largely produced in New York.  Not surprisingly, they are targeted at people advertisers think will spend money on their products.  Requests to model agencies are usually very specific about the sex, age, ethnic group and type of person the client wants. When they aren't specific, agents ask.

The Census Bureau figures for year 2000 show that non-Hispanic Caucasians make up about 62.6% of the population of the United States.  African Americans are about 12.3%, Hispanics 12.5%, Asians 3.0%, Asian Indians (which are asked for separately by casting directors, even though the Census Bureau considers them “Asians”) are about 0.6% of the American population.  About 2.4% of Americans are of “mixed” race (which, for casting purposes, tends to get lumped into groups like “Ethnically Ambiguous”) and another 5.5% are of other races.

We put together a statistical study of 3,419 actual commercial print casting requests to characterize ethnic requests as best we could.  The data is from a classic New York City "commercial print" agency that doesn't get very far afield with "fashion" or "fitness" or "promotional" modeling that would skew the numbers.

Here are the results presented as statistical tables.  Each number represents the percentage of modeling jobs in that age category for a particular ethnic group:

 

Adult Female Models, Ethnic Percentages by Age Group:

 

Age:

Total

17-23

24-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

Caucasian

49

45

43

45

44

54

55

African-American

20

24

23

21

22

17

15

Hispanic/Latino

16

18

18

16

16

15

14

Asian

10

8

9

11

12

9

10

Ambiguous

4

4

4

5

4

5

6

East Indian

2

2

2

2

2

0

0

 

Adult Male Models, Ethnic Percentages by Age Group:

 

Age:

Total

17-23

24-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

Caucasian

51

44

44

51

53

53

56

African-American

18

22

21

16

15

14

18

Hispanic/Latino

15

16

19

16

13

13

12

Asian

9

11

9

8

9

8

9

Ambiguous

6

6

5

8

8

9

6

East Indian

2

2

2

2

2

2

0

 

OK, I know that people’s eyes glaze over when they are presented with columns of statistics, especially when it isn’t exactly clear what the data mean.  So let’s give some examples.  Here are conclusions we can draw from the tables.

  1. Among women, overall 49% of commercial modeling jobs go to Caucasians.  The percentage is a little smaller for younger women through their 40s, but rises to about 55% for women in their 50s and 60s.
  2. The pattern is the reverse for the major ethnic subgroups.  About 20% and 16% of all female modeling jobs are for African American and Hispanics respectively, but the percentages are higher for younger models than older ones.
  3. Among Asians and other minorities, the percentages remain reasonably constant at all ages.
  4. The patterns are very similar for male models.  About half of all modeling jobs are for Caucasians, but the African American and Hispanic models take a bigger share of the market in their younger years, and then a smaller share as they get over 40.
  5. The only ethnic group systematically underrepresented is Caucasian.  Hispanics, African Americans and Asians are all asked for substantially more often than their distribution in the general American population. 
  6. The exceptions are the “other races” category which collectively is less than 6% of the population, and American Indians.  None of these groups makes up enough of a market that national advertisers target ads at them, so the demand for models in those categories is virtually non-existent.  The way models and agencies handle this is to disregard what a model really is, and present him as what he can appear to be.  There are a lot of Persian “Hispanic” or “Generic Ethnic” models, for instance, because advertisers never ask for “Persians.”

Now let’s take a look at the same raw data, but presented in a different way.  This time we want to ask ourselves the question, “What percent of all commercial print jobs goes to any particular age and ethnic category?”  Here are the results:

 

Adult Female Models, Percent of Total Modeling Jobs by Age and Ethnic Group:

 

 

All Ages

17-23

24-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

Caucasian

24.1

5.1

6.4

5.4

3.2

2.5

1.5

African-American

11.4

2.7

3.4

2.5

1.6

0.8

0.4

Hispanic/Latino

8.9

2.0

2.7

1.9

1.2

0.7

0.4

Asian

5.1

0.9

1.3

1.3

0.9

0.4

0.3

Ambiguous

2.3

0.4

0.6

0.5

0.3

0.2

0.2

East Indian

1.0

0.2

0.3

0.3

0.2

0.0

0.0

Total

52.8

11.3

14.8

11.9

7.4

4.6

2.8

 

Adult Male Models, Percent of Total Modeling Jobs by Age and Ethnic Group:

 

 

All Ages

17-23

24-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60+

Caucasian

23.5

2.5

4.2

6.7

5.0

3.4

1.8

African-American

8.1

1.2

2.0

2.1

1.4

0.9

0.6

Hispanic/Latino

7.2

0.9

1.8

2.0

1.2

0.9

0.4

Asian

4.1

0.6

0.9

1.0

0.8

0.5

0.3

Ambiguous

3.3

0.3

0.4

1.0

0.8

0.6

0.2

East Indian

1.0

0.1

0.2

0.2

0.2

0.1

0.0

Total

47.2

5.7

9.4

13.0

9.4

6.5

3.2

 

What conclusions can we get from these tables?  Here are a few:

  1. Only 11.3% of all commercial print jobs are for young girls in the 17-23 year old category. The highest percentage of these is Caucasian, but that still means that 95% of all commercial print work is NOT for "pretty young white girls".  Obviously it's very different in fashion, glamour, art, fitness and some other specialties. But these are numbers that people ought to be aware of when deciding that "I'm too short to be a fashion model so I'll be commercial".
  2. "Prime time" is the late 20s and 30s for women, 30s and 40s for men, and in fact the average age asked for is 37 (35 for women, 39 for men).
  3. Not shown in the numbers on are further important attributes that qualify a model for a job.  No matter who or what you are, 93+% of all commercial castings are not for you.  Even disregarding other things as hair color and “type”, a commercial print agent has to get 15 or more castings in for every one that he can give to even his most popular model.  With those other considerations thrown in, even the most popular model may only be qualified for one job in 30 or so.

The figures and conclusions above are for New York national commercial print ads.  It’s a lot harder to find statistics on local ads, which could be expected to follow local demographics rather then national.  It would be reasonable to believe (even though we do not have data to demonstrate) that local commercial print advertising in Seattle would be different from New Orleans.  But assuming that in aggregate, local ads are similar in racial, age and sex distribution to national ads, the overall opportunities should be similar throughout the country, even though there will be areas which vary substantially from that average.

 

 

 

_________________________________________________

Sampling Error and Statistics

This analysis is based on thousands of job requests in the commercial print industry.  It would be easy for someone who isn’t familiar with statistical analysis techniques to see this discussion as more precise than it really is.

Anyone who has taken a stat class knows that the statistical error of a sample of about 3,400 is on the order of 3%. Even that assumes some things about the sample that are demonstrably not true for our sample: random selection from the population (of NYC or all national commercial print castings), for instance - which we don't have, and which makes the accuracy worse.

It's worse still. All castings do not come in nice, convenient terms that fit well into the analytical categories. Sometimes they say something like "Women from 25-45, all ethnicities" and we have to allocate that somehow to the groups in the table. We made what seem to be reasonable choices, but they are not the only possible choices, and certainly problems like that tend to fuzz things up some. Despite our best efforts, casting directors have proved very resistant to asking for people in a way that fits our study cleanly.

Finally, who gets asked for is not always the same as who gets hired. These numbers reflect requests; we have countless stories of people getting hired who are nothing like what the casting specified.

So if anyone with better data wants to say "No, Caucasian women in their 30s are really used 6.8% of the time in commercial print ads" based on some better sample, we'd cheerfully yield to them. These numbers should not be taken as absolute, or even especially accurate. They are just the best data we have.

Still, given all that, we think that useful impressions of the industry can be gotten from this kind of analysis, as long as we don't take it too literally.

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