Saturday, January 25, 2014

What Does It Mean to Be 'Real' and Why Do We Care So Much About Retouching?

American Eagle's new Aerie REAL campaign for its womens underwear line has made headlines for featuring un-retouched models (SHOCKER, Dove did this back in 2008). On my office block, where American Eagle's Soho store is located are city-block length billboards featuring teenage-looking girls in neon cotton undies with the headline "THE GIRL IN THIS PHOTO HAS NOT BEEN RETOUCHED." SHE'S JUST PERFECT RIGHT? I applaud American Eagle for not masking the true beauty of these models and showing them as they would look in real life, but are models real? Not "retouching" makes a great PR story but the actual credit should go to choosing an ethnically diverse set of no-name models.

Many mass brands talk about the importance of reaching the growing population of multicultural youth--African American, Hispanic and Asian consumers make up 40% of Millennials--and are gradually diversifying the models they use in their ads; however, often this diversity effort is short-lived and only seen in campaigns but not throughout the brand experiences such as the website. 

The Aerie website shopping experience features the same multicultural models such as Amber and Hana modeling all the products. Additionally the "Bra Guide" shows you what the bra would look like on a model with the same cup size. Accurately, a 32B gave me the Asian-mixed model Hana who, of the models, is someone I relate to best.
While I truly believe beauty has no ethnic boundaries, Hana who is probably hapa (half white, half asian) is a familiar body type and face of many girls I grew up with in Hawaii and seeing her model the clothes strangely does make the shopping experience more personal.
With its REAL campaign, Aerie has established a brand distinction from its competitor Victoria's Secret PINK, as the underwear brand for the American girl next door (whether she be Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, Asian or Mixed), while PINK lives in its parent's model identity of being aspirational (see beautiful PINK models below).

Yes, American Eagle's efforts to create a bra shopping experience for young women that is more accurate to what it would look like to try on the bra in the store will help more consumers shop online. But "aspiration" can still be very appealing and may be more desirable than plain utility. Only time will tell.

As for America's obsession with retouching (the recent fuss over Lena Dunham's VOGUE cover), I think people need to remind themselves that models make up 2% of the population and celebrities are paid to look good. When women like Lena Dunham and Kate Upton make the cover--and perhaps an Asian American soon--we should celebrate their fresh perspective and personalities, which is more important than a few strokes in photoshop.

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