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"This Is Who We Are Now:" Why Aerie Stopped Retouching The Models In Its Ads

The American Eagle offshoot has staked its entire brand image on more truth in fashion advertising.

Advertising has long been a realm of the unattainable image. That house is too perfect. That family too happy. That car too damn clean. But nowhere has the issue of reality versus image been more prevalent than in fashion and beauty marketing. Study after study over the years has warned us of its negative impact. And if that didn't work, there was always Dove's 2006 break-through hit "Evolution" leading the charge for more debunking of adland's thin and perfect industrial complex.

American Eagle lingerie brand Aerie has now used the backlash around Photoshop and fashion to create a new campaign dubbed "Real," featuring all unretouched models. It's the brand's first campaign of this kind and Aerie's senior director of marketing Dana Seguin says embracing a more realistic image of girls and women is not just a one-time thing but will now be an integral part of the brand's overall strategy.

"This is now our brand," she says. "It's not a seasonal campaign for us. It is now how we're talking to our customers."

The brand's target audience is 21-year-old women, with a broader reach of 15- to 35-year-olds. Seguin says the new approach is aimed at appealing to women reacting in their own way to the standards society has set. And the culture shift goes beyond its advertising. Most fashion brands display just one model of its product in online stores and—surprise!—it's usually the slimmest size. On the brand's website, it has completely designed its bra guide with each product modelled in every size so customers can see the product displayed on someone who more closely resembles their own body.

"We wanted to offer our customer something different, a real experience," says Seguin. "We listened to our customers, whether on social media, in the stores or in focus groups, and we've heard them talk about body image and how hard it is to find a bra. That really helped us come to this point in the brand."

One look at the new ads and it's clear the models are still models. But at least they're real people and not digital Frankenbeauties. "We're not altering the girls in any way," says Seguin. "Nothing is covered up—tattoos, stretch marks, scars, freckles—what you see is what you get. We're not altering their bodies in any way. The product fits them as shown and no alteration to them at all."

While the idea of unretouched photos makes common sense—none of this should be news—Seguin says the biggest challenge of the change has been unlearning institutional bad habits. "If anything it was more of a mindset change," she says. "As a company and an industry we're just used to retouching a scar or covering a tattoo, and that might've been the hardest part. Making sure nothing was touched. The girls are beautiful on their own. It sounds hysterical for anyone not working in the business but that might've been the toughest part."

If the initial reaction—not to mention all the earned media—the brand has got from the ads is any indication, it hit a nerve that other marketers may be wise to tap themselves. "This represents the evolution of our brand so we'll continue to focus on it and talk to our customers in this way," says Seguin. "This is who we are now."

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  • For goodness is about real women, real bodies and being proud of them. Even supermodels have insecurities about their looks and bodies (possibly even more than your "average" woman). At least this company is making a stand. And so what if the models are all attractive? They may not appear attractive to everyone? Who says they are or aren't attractive? Stop nit picking and be pleased a change is on the way......

  • Woman with SWPL first name? Check Hyphenated last name? Check Same woman giving a man guff for what he finds attractive? Check

    Seems like this stuff doesn't write itself...

  • Barry Quinn

    Yes, these ads prove that when you were born with a near perfect body and maintain it, you will look fantastic in photos wearing almost no clothes. The ads still suggest a level of beauty that is just as unrealistic for the average person.

  • Joseph Janiga

    Are you serious? I go to UC Santa Cruz and honestly see a majority of my peers (both men & women) in just as good of shape if not better shape than the pictures of the women above. Most of them drink alcohol on occasion and aren't afraid to eat what they please (granted what we "please" in Santa Cruz might be a little healthier than the national average). That said, those are all beautiful people and a little bit of self control got them to where they are, not some hardcore, lifelong workout regiment. For some people, working out and eating well is a given, not a chore.

  • I think that's what the author meant when he wrote, "One look at the new ads and it's clear the models are still models." - obviously they're attractive people. That's precisely why models are chosen. That said, the individuals depicted in the article don't suggest an unrealistic level of beauty. If they do...perhaps you need to change where you're living.

  • It's important for women to feel sexy as they are. Advertising, especially for women products, has always been about aspiring for something unattainable - for men and for women. Let's hope that this ad campaign will turn the wheels towards real, attainable and expected beauty. I personally think, being a woman art director, this is a great concept and it will work!

  • I applaud their efforts, but must point out to the author that a 21 year old is a woman, not a girl. Would you ever call a 21 year old male a boy? You've added a lovely element of sexism to an article trying to applaud getting real about women.

  • temp1

    Hey Carlen,

    Fuck off.

    A happy 21 year old girl going out with a 24 year old guy.


  • Thanks for pointing it out. I meant in a guy/girl context -- I would call a 21-yr-old male a "guy" -- but certainly see how it could be read differently. It's been changed.

  • Alexis Thomas

    I think this is wonderful! One of the main problems I had when I was little was that there were so few women my size that I could look to for role models. And not only that, but the women in the magazines always looked perfect, and not like anyone I knew. It wasn't until I was older that I found out that these women didn't even look like that, and that many of them did not appreciate the photos of their bodies being altered. So I feel that this campaign is not only wonderful, but necessary for all the women in the world who struggle to accept whatever size they are; whether it be curvy or thin, athletic or heavy. We are all beautiful, and it's about time that magazines reflected that.

  • I believe these ads would have been a lot better if they weren't so focussed on the anti-retouching and more on the product. The pictures should have been left alone to speak for themselves and not as a sales pitch. Aerie should set the standard without tooting themselves into lameness.

  • I do see your point, but it's funny—showing women as they truly are is such an outlandish idea in fashion right now, that it almost NEEDS an explanation. (I hate to say it, but think it's true.) They should be proud of taking this step and they should tout it. If their marketing comes out ahead, and other companies follow suit, they should be taking credit for leading the pack.

    Just because their bras are of the average quality doesn't mean their ideals need to be.

  • Kelvin Chow

    Its still about beauty nevertheless. Cannot picture them using a plus size woman to show the real sexy, so all this topic about no photoshop is a gimmick. What ever people feel is bad image, is bad for business and publicity.

  • Kevin, I think what they mean by "re-touch" is not taking away a scar or tattoo. What they're talking about is not making models look thinner, or larger (breasts,) different eye color or hair. The models, I'm sure, will have the best make-up artists to cover or enhance what needs to be highlighted or hidden. It's easy with lighting to soften a look, or highlight specific areas.

    As a women, I think is GREAT for business! Women are tired of being lied to and living up to a standard that simply doesn't exist. We all want truth. All marketing campaigns, particularly women-targeted, have little truth. This will make a difference in their sales.

    I just turned 50 but most people think I'm in my 30's or early 40's. Lol, I do have good genes however, the makeup and hairstyle helps take off the years. ;) I'm proof-positive that you don't need photoshop to enhance.

  • Raygun Volt

    So, you are cool with women no longer wearing makeup? Because women being sex objects in media is not as much a mans doing, as it's a womans doing.