Objects in mirror are wider than they appear

Robert Kilroy-Silk, mirrored

This is an interesting story. Robert Kilroy-Silk (above) currently an independent MEP, has raised the issue in the European Parliament of intentionally distorting mirrors in clothes stores, specifically Marks & Spencer:

Marks and Spencer has said it is mystified by a claim by MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk that it uses “distorting” mirrors in its changing rooms.

Mr Kilroy-Silk has accused the store of misleading women with mirrors that make them look slimmer in its clothes.

He made the allegation in a written question in the European Parliament.

An M&S spokesman said: “Our mirrors are perfectly normal, standard mirrors. We are at a loss as to what he might be referring to.”

In his question, Mr Kilroy-Silk asked if it was “conceivable that within the millions of EU regulations covering virtually every aspect of life in the EU” there was not one that made it illegal for M&S to have mirrors that “deliberately distort women’s shapes”.

Now, whatever you might think of Kilroy, and M&S’s denial, it’s surely not that unlikely that intentionally distorting mirrors have been, and probably are, used in some shops, and maybe some homes too. (As the distorting M&S mirrors are apparently in the Windsor and Maidenhead stores, which are pretty local to me, I should probably go and check.) Do cosmetic surgery clinics ever have a different set of mirrors on the way in to those on the way out?

If, when designing a retail environment, you could a) increase sales and b) make customers feel better about themselves by using a ‘slimming’ mirror, why wouldn’t you? How ethical is this? It’s an underhand method of persuasion rather than physical control, but it could make a significant difference to sales, in the process making shoppers feel more positive, even if ultimately it’s deceitful. Hewlett-Packard already produces digital cameras with a ‘slimming’ mode. If it helps you modify your self-image, and you like that, then I’m not sure it’s unethical per se. It’s just part of the great embedded architecture of delusion that fuels modern consumerism. Vanity sizing – another method of persuasion in clothes retailing – is an additional aspect of this.

Mirrors are a useful persuasion and control tool for retail designers anyway, whether distorting or not. People stop or slow down when they encounter them. Sometimes it’s vanity; sometimes it’s simply useful for people to see how they look. As Paco Underhill says in the excellent Why We Buy:

Stand and watch what happens at any reflective surface – we preen like chimps, men and women alike… Mirrors slow shoppers in their tracks, a very good idea for whatever merchandise happens to be in the vicinity.

And, of course, Lawrence Lessig actually mentions the use of mirrors in an ‘architecture of control’ example, in the chapter ‘What things regulate’ of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace:

A large hotel in an American city received many complaints about the slowness of its elevators. It installed mirrors next to the elevator doors. The complaints ended.

What other uses of mirrors, or vanity devices/techniques in general, can be designed into environments to affect consumer behaviour?


  1. Adrian

    The following is not about affecting consumer behaviour, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    Japan has a problem with people suiciding by throwing themselves in front of trains. Apart from the mess and the distress it causes for those who witness it, it also completely messes up the punctuality of the otherwise amazingly punctual train system.

    A lot of ideas have been tried to prevent people from throwing themselves on the tracks, such as barriers and anti-suicide posters, but the most recent idea is to install mirrors at the ends of the platform (where most people throw themselves onto the tracks). If you want to commit suicide you’re going to have to take a good look at yourself first.

    Apparently it’s been very effective at reducing the problem (although it probably just displaces it).

    Here’s a pic:

  2. Dan

    That’s a fantastic example, thanks Adrian, and very architectural. It certainly affects people’s behaviour, and it’s of course better to expand the question to realms outside just manipulating consumers.

    The Japanese ‘suicide culture‘ (if there is such a thing) is interesting in itself. It must have been an ‘issue’ among young people (as opposed to military and nobles) for some time, as Ian Fleming’s original You Only Live Twice, written in the early 1960s, features a ‘suicide garden’ to which many young Japanese flock and which is worrying the local authorities. That’s the limit of my knowledge though.

  3. Sara

    It seems to me that a better, and more honest, way to make consumers feel good about themselves when trying on clothes would be to make the lighting in changing rooms more flattering. I have a pretty healthy body image, but I know I’m not the only woman in the world who has walked into a department store dressing room only to be horrified by the washed out, flourescent lit image gazing back at me.

    I’m all for retail outlets making my shopping experience as comfortable as possible, and certainly many do, with anything from scent in the air to soothing music, etc. but I think we need to draw the line at outright deceit, don’t we? In order to use the slimming function on a digital camera, we have to turn the function on. Certainly we deserve some warning if we’re being artificially slimmed down? Where is the consumer’s choice if the mirrors are distorting her perception? The whole idea of trying on clothes before purchasing them is to see if they’re flattering. How disappointing it would be to purchase a new outfit only to find, perhaps too late, that what flattered you was not the merchandise you spent your hard earned money on but the deceptive mirror!

  4. Theodolinda

    I’m baffled by this. It’s not as if the mirrors, if they exist, are tricking people into buying defective clothing. If the clothes fit and look attractive in a uber-flattering mirror, they’ll do the same the rest of the time, mirror or no mirror. If they are too tight and unflattering in real life, they’ll look badly in the mirror, too. The mirror enhances you – not the clothes. And isn’t that why you’re buying the clothes in the first place? And, if you’re overweight, you’re already painfully aware of the problem, regardless of nice mirrors or vanity-sized pants. It’s not as if one store can delude you into thinking you aren’t – especially if you’re the kind of person fussing over a pair of pants in the first place.

  5. Dan

    Sara – you’re probably right. We do need to draw the line at actual deceit. I suppose a warning/information sign “This store features U-Look-Good™ mirrors to enhance your shopping experience” is probably how it would be resolved if it were actually illegal to use distorting mirrors without notifying customers.

    The lighting issue is a kind of inverse of the mirrors. If a store had changing room lighting which made you look better than daylight, or better than rival stores’ fluorescent lighting, would that be deceitful? It would give that store an advantage over others.

    Unless it became a commonly accepted piece of knowledge that “those store mirrors always make you look slimmer” or “that store always has flattering lighting” just like “TV always adds 10 lb” (weights vary), then I suppose it is something to be concerned about.

    Of course, if Theodolinda’s right (and the argument does make sense), there should be no need to worry at all. I suppose it’s just that at the point where a customer makes the decision there is no other mirror to compare to the distorting one (if it exists). Clearly, as you say, a mirror cannot make the clothes look as though they fit better. But it (along with the lighting) can make the person think “Gosh, I look good” which is sufficiently persuasive to lead to a sale, and in that sense it does help the shop sell more clothes.

    Equally, though, a shop that’s pleasant to shop in for other reasons (nice lighting, nice smell, helpful staff) also probably sells more stuff. That isn’t deceit, and it could only possibly be construed as “unfair to the competition” if you took a “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs“-type line…

  6. Mr. X

    The whole “make customers feel better about themselves” rationalization is disingenuous to the Nth degree. Let’s just cut to the slippery-slope scenarios: Why not pump hypnotic drugs into the store’s AC system to relax shoppers(and not coincidentally affect their decision making)? Why not make shoppers think that they’re getting a bargain by printing prices on credit-card receipts that are lower than what they’re really getting charged? Why not include a statement, buried in small print, on the credit card receipt that would pre-authorize the store to send the customer clothes that the store owners think that they would look good in, and automatically charge their credit card?

    Theodolinda is similarly disingenuous, or merely ignorant of the whole concept of some clothes really making the person look slimmer or otherwise flattering their appearance. To state the staggeringly obvious: if people somehow knew what they looked like in a normal mirror anyway, why would stores bother to install the funhouse variety?

  7. Mr. X,

    I think you’ve made some poor analogies in your slippery slope argument. Most people can tell if they’re beholding themselves in a great mirror. In fact, most people I know actually *like* looking at themselves in slimming mirrors. Why? Because everyone has the vanity vice to some degree.

    The most clear problem with some of your supposedly analogous situations is that you assume that people don’t realize they’re being fooled. Isn’t it possible that people realize they’re being fooled, enjoy being fooled and buy the clothes because they will remember how good they looked in that mirror? We forget that how we appear in a mirror is rarely ever how we appear to everyone we interact with. Get that hair exactly in place? Two minutes later when you’re not looking in the mirror, it’ll be in a different position. Same goes for clothes.

    What I’m getting at is that I think consumers may actually like slimming mirrors because they like to try on clothes in stores and think they look good. It’s not deceipt when the consumers want it!

  8. Sara: The lighting you talk about is widespread in the U.S. I don’t shop often, but dressing rooms in The Gap and H&M offer various lighting settings. I prefer H&M, which professes to offer a “natural light” option.

    Neal: Your point is well taken, but the fitting room mirror is half the equation [the other half being whether the merchandise does, in fact, fit]. I dislike being lied to, even if it is in the interests of my fragile ego. The mirrors serve one purpose, and that is to show you how the clothes really look on you. I think it is only fair that customers be given some sort of notice that objects in mirror may be less flattering than they appear.

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  10. Neal, Mr. X,

    Regarding the slippery slope arguments, the ‘amount on the receipt’ is available across North America in the form of taxes excluded prices printed on tags, menus, etc. Rarely does the actual cost get factored into a purchase before it is made, because it is just damn hard (especially when one tax is calculated on the subtotal of another tax, like in Quebec). I never realised how much better I liked seeing the final price until I lived in Norway for a few months.

    Regarding the funhouse mirrors, I work in the film industry and have received official requests from famous actresses to ‘slim’ them down. All that was done was a horizontal squeeze, and for what it’s worth, about a 2% squeeze sold the effect. So the mirrors could be ever so slight and still be pleasing.

  11. Seth,

    I understand you don’t like being lied to and I think that’s an absolutely fair position to take. However, forcing retailers to put disclaimers on mirrors would be onerous and costly … not to mention kind of silly. Consumers always have the option to vote with their wallets. Another option would be to purchase the clothes and try them on in front of your own mirror (the only mirror that really counts).

  12. marroya

    Certain cuts of clothing can make a person look slimmer, more shapely, or just more attractive than they would be in clothes that aren’t cut as well. If you look in the slimming store mirror with your new clothes on and think, this shirt makes my waist look tiny, then you’ve just been duped. You’ve been sold a product that seems to do more than it actually does. Because the shirt does nothing, and your waist looks exactly the same, so you’ve wasted your money.

    Furthermore, certain shapes of clothing just look good on certain body shapes. If the mirror distorts your body shape, then the skirt that looks great on longer, slimmer legs (for example) in the store mirror may be unflattering in real life. So after you’ve bought them and you’ve decided to wear them, when you catch a glimpse of yourself in your mirror at home, you’ll realize you’ve just wasted your money. Again.

  13. I’ve noticed that U.S. grocers routinely use special lighting (very bright, very white) in their produce sections, which serves to bring out color in the fruit and vegetables and make them look more appealing.

    I’ve also noticed that diamond stores use high-intensity halogen lights over their display counters to make their stones sparkle.

    These techniques of enhancing products are accepted, but when M&S is (allegedly) using shape-enhancing mirrors to make its products more appealing it somehow crosses a line?

  14. Dan

    I’m not sure whether it does cross a line, Brent. As you say, there’s no law against making products look better when trying to sell them. If you’re selling a car, photograph it when wet. I’m not sure many people have an ethical objection to that.

    But when it messes with/affects people’s self-image, it seems to stir up more debate. I think Martin Ciastko’s comment above, where he mentions actresses’ requesting a 2% squeeze mirror (to deceive themselves), shows how complex this subject is. Some people like to be deceived, even when they know what’s going on. Others hate it. Some people go shopping for the experience (and feeling good about yourself may be part of that) and others purely for the function. A supermarket that looks clean and fresh may sell more tinned or packaged goods than one which looks dirtier, even though the goods are sealed and are no different inside.

    Techniques of encouraging sales (or changing public behaviour in general) are always worth discussing. Some are a long way from ‘control’ and actually pretty weak methods of persuasion in themselves. Others have an intent to deceive and manipulate.

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