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."