Is Selling Perfection Detrimental to Sales?

It being New Year, and me being 8-16 hours ahead of all my friends and family in the Western parts of the globe (yes I did see Star Wars before everyone else, and yes I do feel irrationally smug about that), I’ve been spending a large part of today on facebook seeing what everyone’s up to.
Getting drunk by the looks of it, reprobate friends.
Anyway, one of things that came up on my feed was an article about the American Eagle clothing brand that has recently stopped airbrushing its pictures of models in underwear and swimsuit adverts, and has noticed an increase in sales as a result.
I wondered if this was just coincidence, but after reading the article that lori white wrote, and looking at the pictorial adverts, I’ve decided that this is not the case.
Here’s the link for you:
http://www.upworthy.com/american-eagle-underwear-had-an-increase-in-sales-these-10-unretouched-pics-are-maybe-a-clue-why?c=ufb4
I looked at the pictures and saw an array of young, pretty models, with a range of different body types. That in itself was unusual to see. Digitally retouching a picture allows you to shave off contours of the body so that all the women have similar body shapes and proportions, implying one body type is superior to all others. By displaying the genuine stature of their models, what American eagle has done is to appeal to a broader market. More women can picture what the underwear would look like on them, so the sales base has increased.
The other thing that you immediately see are the stretch marks, rolls, skin folds, cellulite, uneven pigmentation and the like, that have not been airbrushed away. Instead of having the same response as I would seeing these things on myself in a changing room mirror (bugger you Target with your overly harsh lighting), which is self-loathing and depression (seriously Target, piss off), I found it refreshing to see these parts of the body looking so beautiful.
Then, and this is the really good bit, I found myself thinking that I had a similar body to these women, so I would look that pretty in those clothes too. Pretty in a “I’m 15 years older than you” way, but pretty nevertheless.
Next, just to prove that I am susceptible to advertising, I thought, “When I get back to the states I’ll have to pop into an American Eagle to see what their underwear line is like”.
I’ve never thought that about a Victoria’s Secrets catalogue. The thing is, when you look at pictures of airbrushed digital perfection, you don’t feel good about yourself, you feel crap. You feel like you need to go on a diet and punish yourself at the gym for three hours a day, and then reward your hard work by getting your skin chemically burned off to give it a bit of polish. And after all that, you’ll be worthy of treating yourself to fancy underwear. You do not feel like you should zip out to the mall to max out your credit card before the store shuts.
That’s when I realised that much of the time – particularly for clothes – advertising works by showing us someone impossibly glamorous, someone who we want to be, and telling us: “If you buy our product, you will be this glamorous, sexpot”. But you don’t feel like that person, we feel ugly and frumpy compared to the fake person on the screen, and how many people enjoy shopping when they feel ugly?  By giving us an impossible level of perfection to emulate, are companies actually making us feel unworthy of buying their wares for everyday use and instead limiting huge swathes of the public to purchasing their product only on special occasions?
Conversely what American Eagle has done is say: you are already this gorgeous, you are the type of person who wears these clothes, the person you want to be…is you. You should buy something new so the entire world can have the joy of admiring your beauty.
(On a side note, some of these pictures that American Eagle are using could easily be the ones that magazines use when they’re body shaming celebrities, the difference is that these pictures don’t come with a tag line saying the model needs to go to boot camp. Instead the person in the picture looks amazing because we’re not being told otherwise.)
I hated shopping in my teens and twenties because in my eyes I didn’t look as good as a thin person would. Even now, years later, I am careful to shop only when I’m in a good mood. Prior to the age of 23 the most form fitting clothes I wore were my school uniform. (Admittedly I was a teenager during the grunge epidemic, so my skewed body image wasn’t entirely to blame for my baggy fashion choices.) A look at my wardrobe today will show you clothes in smaller sizes that are colourful, sassy, whimsical; and then as we journey through the larger sizes, where I become less confident about my body, the clothes become progressively darker, less vibrant, plain and serviceable. The point to this is not for me to sounds like a paranoid mess, but to illustrate that when you don’t feel attractive you only buy clothes because you absolutely have to.
American Eagle’s photographs are giving women realistic people to compare themselves to, and a much needed ego-boost. In doing this they have increased the numbers of shoppers who include themselves in their target audience, and they’ve put all of them in the optimum frame of mind to spend money.
Very clever. I wonder what would happen if other product lines followed suit. Would Rolex and Tag Heuer sell more watches if their models sported thinning strands and a realistic, comfortable paunch, maybe some love handles? Would jewellery sales go up at Christmas if the women in the adverts included not just the slender, delicate featured actresses, but also ladies with soft upper arms, and wide noses and thighs that rubbed together?
Which opens another question; do men also benefit from adverts using realistic, un-altered photos of women? It seems to me that some men feel under pressure to have a drop-dead gorgeous girl on their arm and have also bought into the idea that flawlessness is not only attainable, but mandatory. Would they also look at these pictures and think the models beautiful? Would they in turn look at their partners, or the average woman on the street and find them even more attractive? Could the exact same situation be applicable in reverse: would women look at a regular Joe with greater favour if the media offered a more realistic standard of male beauty instead of the usual chiselled jaws, six packs, piercing eyes, poker straight, gleaming teeth?
Maybe we’d have this glorious spiral of people feeling more attractive and recognising others as beautiful, or maybe absolutely nothing would change.. but I’ll bet everybody would be happier if their partners, male or female, felt more comfortable without their clothes on.

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