Researchers in beauty, culture named Young Scholars

By Chicago 6 Min Read

CHAMPAIGN — The Marketing Science Institute has named two Gies College of Business faculty members 2023 Young Scholars.

Both Maria Rodas and Rosanna Smith are relatively new to the University of Illinois, with Smith only joining the faculty earlier this fall.

She’s an associate professor of business administration, but Smith’s first degree was in art from Yale.

“I’ve always been very interested in creative fields with a capital ‘C,’” Smith said, “But it’s very hard to know how to have a sustainable life through that.”

One of the fields Smith found she could combine her love of art and interest in understanding people was advertising.

She returned to Yale to pursue a Ph.D. in business, which she could use to research the practical questions she was curious about.

“There’s this field out there that doesn’t limit itself to psychology, sociology or economics, but instead says, ‘How do we answer this question?’” Smith said.

A lot of her research that began when she worked at the University of Georgia is already continuing and expanding now that she’s a faculty member at UI.

Smith is trying to answer questions about things that affect everyone: authenticity and beauty, especially in the realms of marketing and social media.

One example of her research interests is the “no makeup” movement.

“What it really does is encourage the creation of a look that looks like no makeup, but it isn’t,” Smith said.

The researchers showed how makeup sales have continued to increase despite the movement and how brands designed to create “natural” looks started to thrive.

Since starting at UI, another beauty-focused topic Smith is looking into surrounds social media algorithms.

The “Instagram face” phenomenon refers to how the most famous beauty influencers look increasingly similar, having similar facial structures and makeup styles.

“Our hypothesis is that popularity breeds homogeneity,” Smith said.

“We know that popular people tend to be conventionally attractive, but what we’re also trying to show is that the social media algorithms encourage exposure to similar looking people.”

It doesn’t stop there; Smith is interested in how these movements in beauty affect mental health, how “body positivity” or “realness” in marketing intersects with actual beauty standards and more.

Rodas was also inspired to pursue academia because of her questions about the world.

She’s been at UI a bit longer than Smith, having started in 2021 as an assistant professor of business administration, but her prior experience is mostly in the marketing industry.

Rodas joked about having an early midlife crisis, but remembering a business professor from her grad studies at Columbia University.

She got her undergraduate degree in economics at Harvard.

“I always thought it was so cool that he gets paid to research these super interesting questions,” Rodas said.

She pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, then taught for a couple years at the University of Southern California before coming to UI.

“I actually missed the Midwest. I love the seasons, I love the Midwest culture, so now I’m here,” Rodas said.

Having the opportunity to devote time to research feels like a luxury, Rodas said, so she’s hitting the ground running with topics surrounding branding and culture.

One study is on how brands can change consumers’ perspectives by telling them how to use a product in a new way.

Rodas mentioned Pedialyte as an example, since it shifted from being for treating kids’ illness to treating anything from hangovers to dehydration in adults.

“If a brand does that to a consumer, I find that consumers evaluate that brand as better, they like it more,” Rodas said.

“The sense of gaining a new perspective makes you feel good, so these good feelings kind of spill over into the brand.”

Another project she’s only just beginning has to do with whether social media is making culture more dispersed as algorithms serve different people very different perspectives of the world.

“Culture is having a consensus of what reality is, that certain things mean a specific thing,” Rodas said.

“Now that we have all of these customized realities for us, the sense of what culture is isn’t as clear.”

Being named MSI 2023 Young Scholars will give Rodas and Smith the opportunity to join a four-day conference in January where they’ll discuss research and collaboration with other marketing researchers.

They were selected based on published work and productivity over the last five years.

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