Dana Seguin spent much of the past two weeks obsessively scrolling through her Facebook and Instagram accounts at the office.
It’s the sort of thing that might get someone fired, but for Seguin, the senior director of marketing for American Eagle‘s lingerie brand Aerie, it was a unique mix of business and pleasure.
Two weeks after unveiling the #AerieReal campaign that featured unretouched images of average-looking lingerie models, the Pittsburgh-based company has been swamped with thousands of messages of thanks and support from women across the country.
“It’s incredible, I can’t stop,” Seguin told Lingerie Talk. “I’ve been reading every Instagram comment, every Facebook post. I need to shut my computer down at night to go to sleep.”
The #AerieReal campaign landed like a bombshell when it debuted on Good Morning America on Jan. 17.
Aerie‘s decision to hire models with a range of body sizes and to stop Photoshopping images sparked a powerful, often emotional, response in women who have been complaining about such things for years. And, significantly, countless women who reacted online vowed to ditch their usual lingerie brand and switch to Aerie to support the company’s new direction.
From a public relations standpoint, Aerie‘s bold move was nothing short of a home run. But it may also trigger a seismic shift throughout the lingerie industry, as competing brands take notice of the surge in media attention, corporate goodwill and new customers that Aerie is enjoying.
And #AerieReal is more than just a photo campaign to promote the brand’s spring line.
The company also upgraded its website to include a new bra guide that shows the same products on different models, in sizes ranging from A to DD. And customers will get live support after Aerie hired fashion editor Jenny Altman to visit stores and connect with girls via social media to help them with their style choices and bra-fitting issues.
Customers are also being encouraged to jump on the real girl bandwagon. There’s a new program, launched after #AerieReal took off, that invites girls to celebrate themselves by sending in selfies — resulting in a massive photo gallery of Aerie fans that seemed to spring up on the company website almost overnight.
In addition, the company has begun profiling store employees with a ‘Real Talk’ feature on the AE blog, and hosts ‘Real Talk Thursdays’, an online roundup of customer comments about what beauty means to them.
“This is not just a seasonal campaign,” Seguin told us. “This is the future of the Aerie brand.”
Aerie‘s management team had been preparing the #AerieReal launch for almost a year, but the inspiration didn’t come from studying balance sheets or market trends. Instead, it was driven by a potent mix of consumer activism and of-the-moment technology. #AerieReal may have become a viral phenomenon, but it was created by one, too — specifically, repeated requests posted by its million-plus followers on Facebook and other social media platforms.
“We really listened to not only what’s going on in society but also our own customers,” Seguin said. “And one of the biggest places was social media.”
At head office, American Eagle supported the proposed shift, especially since it dovetails with AE’s ‘Project Live Your Life’ that shares customers’ stories, images and lives.
“Everyone was on board and everyone was excited about wanting to shape the brand in the direction the customer wanted,” Seguin said.
The biggest challenge came in casting the five models who would represent the new Aerie.
The company auditioned more than 300 models of different shapes, heights and skin tones for photographer John Urbano’s campaign — many of whom had never been asked to pose in lingerie before.
“These girls are all different sizes and would never traditionally be chosen to be lingerie models,” Jenny Altman told Lingerie Talk. “But this is what their customer was asking for. Now customers can see themselves in these models.”
Aerie, founded in 2006, had previously gone with natural-looking supermodels and for several years was represented by the freckled, ginger-haired Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Cintia Dicker. Its new modeling team shows a lot more than just freckles, though: look closely and you’ll see tattoos, beauty marks, cellulite, and plenty of unretouched rolls, curves, lines and shadows that are never found in typical lingerie advertising.
Seguin said the #AerieReal campaign is intended as “a message to our girls about their own confidence and the word ‘real’ and what that means. Each one of them is beautiful in their own way.”
None of this sounds very revolutionary — until you consider the context. Fashion brands have been under attack for years for promoting unhealthy, unrealistic standards of beauty through the use of stick-thin supermodels and the widespread practice of post-production photo editing that gives models ridiculous body proportions and a polished, uniform skin tone.
Lingerie companies, because they necessarily show the most skin in their advertisements, have borne the brunt of the backlash.
Companies such as Victoria’s Secret and similar mass-market brands are assailed repeatedly by consumer activists, parenting groups, women’s organizations and both fashion and social pundits for marketing practices that critics say promote a kind of virulent, self-destructive narcissism in insecure young women.
Some lingerie brands in recent years have capitalized on consumer demand for more realistic marketing by using “real women” — often their own customers — in their advertising. Most of those efforts, however, have involved plus-size labels appealing to bustier customers and the resulting promotions are still airbrushed.
Among major American brands, no one has yet thrown out the fashion marketing toolkit that is routinely used to manufacture and sell the fantasy of unblemished perfection.
Showing a variety of body types in unaltered images can have a big impact, according to Beth Malcolm, Girls Fund Director for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, which supports empowerment programs for girls aged 9-13 across Canada.
“Kids are comparing themselves,” Malcolm told Lingerie Talk. “It’s important that girls see themselves (in advertising) because they do compare themselves to what they see.”
In November, the foundation released results of a survey that cast a grim spotlight on body-image issues among younger girls: 17% of all Canadians polled said they know a girl who thinks she’s ugly; 22% said they know a girl who thinks she is fat; and 18% of girls aged 9-16 said they are on a diet.
“Obviously, this is not a healthy thing,” Malcolm said.
“We have to commend Aerie and American Eagle. It’s very powerful that companies like theirs step forward. It’s going to make a huge difference for young girls to see different body shapes and body types.”
With its new campaign, Aerie joins a small list of international brands that have positioned themselves as trailblazers in the debate over how women are portrayed in advertising.
The most well known is the Dove ‘Campaign For Real Beauty’, which has used thought-provoking ads and educational resources to promote discussion about standards of beauty.
In Canada, the Quebec-based family-run fashion brand Jacob became the first national brand to stop retouching its ads when it adopted a no-retouching policy in September 2010 in “an effort to promote a healthy image of the female body.” Two years later, a survey by the U.S. National Organization for Women asked women what changes they most wanted to see in the media; an end to airbrushing and Photoshopping was the most common answer.
More recently, and more provocatively, the UK department store chain Debenhams (above) announced in June 2013 that it would stop airbrushing images of its lingerie models, saying retailers have a “moral responsibility” to portray women in a positive and healthy way. The move came on the heels of a UK schools study that showed 58% of girls aged 14-15 wanted to lose weight. Fake ad images were “crushing (the) self-esteem” of young girls across the country, the company said, encouraging other brands to follow its example.
But the most direct antecedent of the new Aerie campaign was the example of a group of American schoolgirls who began making their voices heard on the subject two years ago.
In May 2012, the teen activists — part of the SPARK girls movement and led by 14-year-old Maine middle schooler Julia Bluhm — marched on the New York offices of both Seventeen and Teen Vogue to deliver a petition demanding an end to image manipulation in fashion magazines. The girls’ online petition eventually got more than 84,000 signatures and persuaded Seventeen to issue its ‘Body Peace Treaty’, which bears a strong resemblance to the poster promoting Aerie‘s commitment of values.
Today, SPARK offers enthusiastic — but qualified — support for the #AerieReal campaign.
“I am truly thrilled that a major corporate brand is publicly promising not to digitally alter women’s bodies,” Dana Edell, executive director of the nationwide coalition of feminist organizations that promote healthy sexuality among girls aged 13-22, told Lingerie Talk.
“So many studies have shown the ways that unrealistic, unattainable images of women contribute to physical, mental and emotional health problems in girls and showing images of real, ‘un-retouched’ women is a step in the right direction, for sure. I also really appreciate and love that the women in the photos are all smiling and look strong, happy and confident.”
By positioning itself at the forefront of the issue, however, Aerie also invites criticism. Body-image issues are complex and nuanced, and for some observers, using unretouched images should be just the start of a broader change in values.
“American Eagle is a brand mostly marketed to teens and tweens and children and I don’t feel that the goal of all clothing is to make you feel and be sexy,” Edell said. “Granted, it is undergarments, so I get it. But still, I would have preferred more active, empowering images that show that women are more than just sexy bodies — no matter what those bodies look like.
“If they truly, honestly cared about improving the lives and health of women and girls, they would not participate in a media culture that puts so much value on women’s appearance and ‘sexiness’ and perpetuates messages that women should feel insecure and ugly in order to show that their products are interrupting this.”
Still, SPARK views the #AerieReal campaign as a significant benchmark and invited five of its young members to participate in an online dialogue about the campaign, asking “Is this a spark of a movement … or a tacky gimmick?”
The discussion, which will be published soon on the SPARK website under the headline “SPARK discusses #AerieReal”, showed general support for Aerie‘s move … and some doubts, too.
“Seeing bellies that are not flat is very comforting,” noted Madeline, one of the participants in the SPARK discussion (an advance copy of which was given to Lingerie Talk).
“It definitely speaks to them as a company that they changed policies when no one else will,” added another participant named Mehar.
But another SPARK girl, Lill, was skeptical about Aerie‘s motives.
“Even without Photoshop these models are still very carefully picked to tell girls that they are not good enough,” she said. “They are taking advantage of the vulnerability girls have about the way they look … to say even unphotoshopped these models are better than you and, of course, it is Aerie underwear that is going to make you look more like these models.”
And #AerieReal took a drubbing last week in a column by New York magazine writer Maureen O’Connor, who seemed to find all such initiatives repugnant and slammed the “prurient appeal” of unretouched photos of female models.
“Aerie, Dove, and their ilk are still catering to female insecurity; they’re just doing it in a feel-good way instead of an anxiety-inducing one,” O’Connor wrote. “Like all lifestyle brands, they’re still in the business of selling women better versions of themselves; in this case, they’re just presenting a slightly more modern ideal than Victoria’s Secret.”
For its part, Aerie knows that it has ignited a national conversation about how women are portrayed in the media and how corporate brands regard their own customers — even if that wasn’t quite their intent.
“I don’t know we thought about it that way,” Aerie‘s Dana Seguin said. “It’s more about the message we are delivering to our customer.
“We know this is what this age group of women talk about and care about, and we have a real emotional connection with that. We want to have this inspiring, real place for them to come and shop.”
The immediate, enthusiastic welcome received by #AerieReal is almost certain to shake up the American lingerie market and prompt competing brands to adopt Aerie‘s approach. And, strange as it may sound in the cutthroat world of retail fashion, this is one time Aerie doesn’t mind if other brands copy them.
“I hope other brands follow along,” Jenny Altman told us. “If one other brand gets on board, or 100 get on board, that’s fantastic.”
“If other people follow suit,” added Seguin, “as a woman, I would love that.”