It’s no secret, advertising professors say, that today’s customer wants more than airbrushed images. Brands such as Dove and Nike have found mainstream success — and racked up millions of dollars in sales — with marketing campaigns that challenge traditional beauty ideals.
There has been a slow but steady shift, industry insiders say, toward more realistic advertising as beauty and clothing companies embrace more natural portrayals of women. Companies such as Asos and ModCloth have pledged to stop retouching photos.
Lingerie brand Aerie says sales have increased by at least 20 percent each year since it stopped airbrushing its ads four years ago. The company’s hashtag, #aeriereal, which encourages consumers to share natural photos of themselves in the brand’s lingerie and swimwear, has been used more than 100,000 times on Instagram. Aerie also relies on “college ambassadors” to help promote its brand in person and routinely features shopper- submitted photos on its website and in store windows.
“There’s no question that today’s young customers know the difference between fact and fiction,” said Jennifer Foyle, Aerie’s global brand president. “They want honesty and authenticity.”
And Everlane, experts say, is taking that message a step further with its unapologetic advertising.
“You can see stretch marks on some of these women — stretch marks!” said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “That alone will resonate with millions of women.”
For decades, advertisers have leaned on highly polished, idealized images to appeal to people’s aspirations. That has been especially true of beauty and apparel companies that have long excelled at selling lifestyles that are out of reach: Buy this pair of underwear, their ads appeared to say, and your fantasies will come true.
But that sensibility is shifting, advertising professors say, as today’s consumers demand more realistic portrayals.
“This generation is calling BS on traditional labels from all different angles,” said Beth Egan, 52, an advertising professor at Syracuse University. “Whereas my generation and the generation before mine both bought into idealized versions in advertising, these women are saying, ‘I’m going to do me, and it’s going to be fabulous.’ ”
At Everlane, an in-house team of about 15 employees — mostly women — put together the campaign for the underwear line, which launched last month. They decided from the beginning that none of the photos would be retouched, not even for the company’s billboards in Los Angeles and New York, said Alexandra Spunt, head of Everlane’s creative team.
“For such a long time, the underwear industry has put up this image that in order to be sexy, you can’t be comfortable,” she said. “We wanted to show that that isn’t the case by casting these beautiful, natural, confident women who felt super comfortable in their own skin.”
The company is among a growing crop of start-ups looking to capitalize on that demand. Others, such as ThirdLove and True&Co. (which was recently acquired by Calvin Klein’s parent company, PVH) have been founded on similar principles: No- nonsense underwear made for a woman’s body instead of a man’s eyes. “We love boobs,” True&Co. says on its website. “So we’ve made it our mission to make yours happy.”
But striking the right balance with customers can be difficult. Some shoppers said they felt conflicted about Everlane’s ads.
“The whole idea of feminist lingerie is more marketing buzz speak than anything rooted in reality,” said Cora Harrington, 33, who runs the blog Lingerie Addict. “Everlane can pretend to be doing something revolutionary, but they have not been consistently inclusive.” (An example of a company that has? Harrington pointed to Lonely Lingerie, a New Zealand-based brand that has used older models and breast cancer survivors in its advertising.)
Everlane, she added, may be using a range of models for its new underwear line, but it continues to rely on young, thin women to promote the rest of its clothing. And even the company’s underwear offerings are limited — they begin at size XXS but max out at XL.
“At first glance, you look at the ads and say, ‘Oh, they’re using unconventional models. It’s not all bone-thin women with enormous breasts like you might see in a Victoria’s Secret ad,’ ” said Meenakshi Gigi Durham, a professor at the University of Iowa whose work focuses on media, gender and sexuality. “But then you look closer, and it still all falls within a fairly limited range of bodies.”
Durham also didn’t think the company’s ads were particularly bold.
“I don’t see this as very non-conformist or resistant,” Durham said. “Women are very savvy consumers. and they can see when a corporate marketing campaign is capitalizing on feminist dissent and dissatisfaction with feminist beauty ideals.”
‘I could wear this, too’
The first time Brie Statham saw Everlane’s underwear ads, she felt she finally had found a company that represented her. She immediately ordered three pairs of underwear.
“It’s relatable,” the 34-year-old proposal writer said, adding that she wished Everlane’s other campaigns were similarly inclusive. “These models look like me and my friends, which makes me feel like, hey, I could wear this, too.”
Consumers are more likely to pay attention to an ad when they can relate to it, says Scheinbaum of the University of Texas.
“If you’re not in the market for a car, your brain tends to tune out ads about sedans or SUVs,” she said. “Subconsciously, you check out a bit. But when you see someone who looks like you or has your body type, your brain might give it some more thought.”
That is increasingly true of today’s 20-, 30- and 40- somethings, she said. After all, sales at Victoria’s Secret — a company known for its sexy ads and lingerie-filled fashion shows — have been sloping downward for months. The brand’s sales tumbled 8 percent last year, following a flat performance in 2016. The stock price of its parent company, L Brands, has fallen nearly 60 percent since 2016.
And while Victoria’s Secret “angels” may have attracted customers in the past, today’s shoppers increasingly think of the brand as “forced” and “fake,” according to a Wells Fargo consumer survey.
The company’s annual televised fashion show hit a new low last year as viewership dropped to less than 5 million, down 32 percent from the year before. (For comparison’s sake, more adults tuned in to watch a repeat of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on CBS that evening.) At its peak, in 2001, the lavish event attracted 12.4 million viewers.
But even though Everlane offers an alternative to the lacy and impractical, many on social media said they had unanswered questions. What does it mean for a lingerie company to be “feminist,” women wondered on Twitter. And is sexy underwear inherently at odds with feminism?
“I generally like Everlane and dislike frills/things-typically- assigned-feminine,” Eillie Anzilotti, a writer for Fast Company magazine, wrote on Twitter. “But I love cute underwear and hate that this is essentially telling me that I’m capitulating to the patriarchy by doing so.”
Even so, Spunt of Everlane says demand for its simple basics has been brisk. More than 30,000 people were on a wait list for its cotton underwear ahead of the March launch.
The company’s $22 Tank Bra sold out within 24 hours, and Spunt says women in particular seem to have responded to the new ad campaign.
(The company’s men’s underwear line, by comparison, is being promoted by more- traditional models who are young, thin and muscular. They have bulging biceps and very little body hair. “A version of masculinity that is very difficult to achieve in real life,” said Durham of the University of Iowa.)
“We felt like this was more of a women’s story this time,” Spunt said. “We wanted that to be our focus.”