Customers are used to brands showing off skinny models to sell a product. But Victoria’s Secret sparked a public furor last month when it advertised its Body lingerie line by emblazoning its familiar brand image of thin underwear models with the text, "The Perfect 'Body.’"
"It is one thing to show women and imply something, but it is quite another thing to say it outright," says Julie Sygiel, founder and CEO of underwear retailer Dear Kate. "Victoria’s Secret took it too far with this campaign."
It’s important to note that in this case the issue does not lie with the size of the women featured in the ad, because brands such as Victoria’s Secret tend to not carry plus sizes, says Tracy Anderson, VP and account director at Burrell Communications.
The problem, she explains, is a word such as "perfect" should never be used when communicating about body image.
"It is dangerous to refer to anything or anyone as ‘perfect,’ and by taking that approach you are going in at a deficit and you could potentially give someone a complex," contends Anderson. "‘Perfect’ and the idea of ‘perfection’ is slightly outdated at this point, because everyone is running with the whole ‘perfectly imperfect’ thing."
On the other hand, if a brand trades its lean models for heavier ones and claims they are "real women" in a campaign, that can imply skinny women are less "real," Sygiel explains.
"Thinking carefully about the message you are sending is important, because every woman’s body is valid," she says. "You don’t have to put down certain body shapes in order to uplift other body shapes."
Women, of course, come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so brands need to ensure they are formulating their messaging accordingly. The happy medium is simply being inclusive when discussing body image, according to Anderson.
"Multicultural consumers and women of color, for instance, may have different definitions of ‘perfection,’" she adds.
A number of brands highlighted their own inclusivity on body image in response to Victoria’s Secret’s faux pas.
One was smaller rival Dear Kate, which published a blog post on its corporate website about Victoria’s Secret’s "irresponsible marketing," and recreated the infamous ad to show women from a range of different ethnicities and body shapes wearing its underwear. The post has since gone viral, receiving more than 1 million views, according to Sygiel.
Its reimagining of the campaign on Facebook received more than 4,000 likes and was shared about 9,500 times.
"We choose models who we admire because of who they are and what they do, not only how they look," says Sygiel. "That has resonated with our customers and goes along with the fact that our product is functional and recognizes there is so much more to women than superficialities."
UK-based plus-size fashion retailer JD Williams also responded to the ad with its own Perfectly Imperfect campaign, encouraging users to share their favorite aspects of themselves with the #FavouriteFlaw hashtag on Twitter.
Dove got involved, too, releasing an image of curvier women in their underwear with the slogan "The Perfect Real Body," in reference to its own long-running Real Beauty campaign.
Although PR pros agree that brands should be as inclusive as possible, the identity of their target consumer and human insights should be part of the process. But most importantly, a brand needs to know its purpose going into a body-image campaign, says Tonia Elrod, associate director of communications at Procter & Gamble.
For example, P&G’s feminine products brand Always tries to champion the confidence of young women, explains Elrod, who was one of the people behind the brand’s campaign to turn the negative connotation of the expression "like a girl" into a positive one.
The effort, which launched in July, included a video that garnered more than 75 million views in more than 150 countries on YouTube.
"Being authentic to our brand and purpose, as well as being authentic with consumers, led to our success with the campaign," Elrod says.
A friendly tone
Women today are more discerning about the messages brands relay, according to Dear Kate’s Sygiel, who says companies should communicate about body image as if consumers are their friends.
"If you’re someone’s friend, you are going to be on their side and be supportive of them and want what is best for them," she adds. "A friend isn’t going to tell you how you should look or act."
To make sure Dear Kate avoids this, Sygiel says her staffers think twice about what they post on the brand’s social media pages. Specifically, she asks them to consider whether or not what they post is something they would be comfortable saying on their personal accounts.
"When you think about communications in terms of something your friends are going to see, it helps you to come more from a place of support and authenticity," Sygiel explains.
She adds that Millennials don’t make purchasing decisions in the same way previous generations do.
"The Millennial generation looks for brands that reflect their values," Sygiel says. "Some brands are adopting quickly to that and some not so much."
What warrants an apology?
A brand’s body-image campaign might not always resonate with everyone, whether it strives for exclusivity or not. In the end, every brand has the right to communicate what it wants about itself and its idealized customer in whatever way they are comfortable with, even if it offends some people, according to Kwittken chief creative officer Jason Schlossberg.
Victoria’s Secret replaced its controversial slogan on Thursday with the tagline, "A Body for Every Body," but the retailer has not formally apologized. Schlossberg argues that an apology isn’t warranted if the intent of Victoria’s Secret’s campaign was to be provocative.
"If it ultimately made the decision that this is how it wants to communicate its brand, Victoria’s Secret is entitled to do that and whether or not individuals like that or respond positively or negatively doesn’t matter," he says. "Victoria’s Secret’s job is not to become perfectly acceptable to everyone, but just to the audience it wants to reach. We are assuming every brand has to communicate in a way that is appealing to absolutely everybody, and I am not sure that is in fact the case."
But if Victoria’s Secret did not anticipate the backlash it provoked and it unintentionally alienated certain consumers, Schlossberg says the company should indeed apologize.
Victoria’s Secret did not return PRWeek’s calls or emails seeking comment.