Dunham Photoshop 'controversy' unwittingly boosts new aerie ad campaign


American Eagle’s aerie lingerie retail chain’s Spring 2014 ad campaign got a public relations boost from a totally unexpected quarter – Lena Dunham, from the much hyped but little watched “Girls” HBO series.

The announcement of aerie REAL lingerie for young women 15 to 21 years old and its advertising campaign featuring, as the copy says, “NO MORE RETOUCHING” came hot on the heels of Dunham’s manufactured controversy over her heavily Photoshopped Vogue cover photo.

Fantasy trumps feminism

As Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog noted, Dunham’s cover shot and the photos of her in the accompanying article “hardly reflect reality.” As you’ll see from the marked-up photo in the slide show,

[a]n annotated gif points out that Dunham’s hips have been pulled in, her jawline slimmed, defined and raised. The bags under her eyes have been removed and the smile line on the right-hand-side of her face has been erased entirely.

And how did this self-styled “standard bearer for feminist thought” react to this objectification of her body? By being all for it.

“A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy,” she told Slate France.

Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism and so I feel like if the story reflects me and I happen to be wearing a beautiful Prada dress and surrounded by beautiful men and dogs, what’s the problem? If they want to see what I really look like[,] go watch the show that I make every single week.

Feminism trumps fantasy

Right around the same time, aerie announced an ad campaign that would raise the standard that Dunham had let fall. In a January 17 press release, they unveiled new ads that, they said, were “challenging supermodel standards by featuring unretouched models in their latest collection of bras, undies and apparel.”

As the copy of one of those ads spelled it out,

We think it’s time for a change. We think it’s time to GET REAL and THINK REAL. We want every girl to feel good about who they are [sic] and what they [sic] look like, inside and out. This means NO MORE RETOUCHING OUR GIRLS AND NO MORE SUPERMODELS.

Why? Because there is no reason to retouch beauty. We think THE REAL YOU IS SEXY.

[capitalization in the original]

The camera does lie

All that being said, the young women in the ads aren’t exactly being shown in what Huffington Post writer Ellie Krupnick called “all their real, unretouched glory.”

Unretouched, yes. But real, no.

The young women in the ads didn’t just happen to wander in randomly off the street. They were selected for their good looks. Krupnick praises the campaign for building “young women’s sense of body confidence” by “show[ing] off its cute bras and undies with real rolls, lines and curves.” When you look at the ads in the slide show, though, you’ll see real curves but no lines or rolls.

They got top-notch, professional makeup and hair styling.

They were very carefully lit and posed.

And dozens, maybe hundreds, of photos were shot, out of which one made it into an ad.

It’s not about feminism

Rhetoric to the contrary, this campaign is not about feminism. If it were, it wouldn’t sell.

And it will sell, because it’s about something far more fundamental.

It’s about making the target audience – high school- and college-age women – feel good about themselves. By simply telling them that “The real you is sexy.”

Procter & Gamble understood this principle with their “Proud sponsors of moms” 2012 Olympic campaign. As we wrote at the time,

P&G’s Olympics advertising isn’t really about the Olympics. It’s about their audience — the mothers of the world who raise and take care of their kids with love and hard work (and buy Procter & Gamble products, but the spots don’t talk about that). So while viewers see some Olympic-type footage, it’s with a twist, and only in a supporting role.

The stars of the commercials are mothers.

[E]ven without the original music score, without the cast of dozens and hundreds of extras, without all the international location shooting, it’s possible to do what P&G did right:

  • Make your advertising about your audience, not your product. Ans talk to them, not at them. People care about themselves, not you; that’s human nature.
  • Emotions trump laundry lists of product features. You’re spending all this money to make your prospective customers feel good, not yourself. And people make purchase decisions emotionally, then use sales points for after-the-fact justification.
  • Romance your audience, and they’ll love you back. People like people who make them feel good about themselves, and they buy from people they like.

P&G got it right; aerie REAL got it right. And no advertiser can go wrong by following their examples.


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