In Victoria’s Secret latest lingerie campaign, released this week, four models stare at the camera, hips popped and arms on hips, wearing black strappy bras and panties like seductive garden ants.
Shot straight-on in front of a beige background, the ads lack even a cursory pretense of nuance or artistic vision.
But the picture wasn’t the point, really. It was the caption that came underneath: “The Bluebella for Victoria’s Secret campaign features a diverse set of models, including a transgender model and plus-size model,” WWD first reported. (Their names are May Simón Lifschitz and Ali Tate Cutler, respectively.)
The images are less of a campaign and more of an apology. And if you ask many upset shoppers, the embroiled underwear chain has much to atone for: Victor’s Secret has faced a host of challenges in the past year, most self-inflicted.
It began when former CMO, Edward Razek, made trans- and fatphobic comments to Vogue in November. His words set off a wave of backlash. Things got worse when an indie brand accused VS of copying its designs and, more distressingly, owner Les Wexner’s ties to the late sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein came under scrutiny.
Now, the company known for its runway cast of “angels” has returned with its wings briskly beating, still trying to soar in a market that increasingly values reality over the “fantasy” VS used to proudly hawk.
As Fast Company reported this summer, #MeToo directly impacted VS’ bottom line—at the end of 2017, during the movement’s heyday, sales fell from the previous year’s $8 billion to $7.4 billion. One “inclusive” marketing campaign and a few flimsy new bra sets will probably do nothing to woo back disillusioned shoppers who left the brand to feel empowered elsewhere.
But just like supermodel Ming Xi got back up after falling on the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2017, the brand hopes to rise again. After all, though its share of the lingerie market has tumbled in the past few years, it still has the biggest control at 24 percent.
Still, the performative wokeness of the brand’s attempted redo has been called out by many this week. Fashionista editor-in-chief Tyler McCall wrote on Twitter that Tate Cutler, VS’ first plus-size model, “developed a reputation as being fat-shaming.” Refinery29’s Channing Hargrove called the hiring of Tate Cutler “too little too late”—a sentiment widely repeated on social media.
“This is the perfect example of Victoria’s Secret reacting to the consumer, not being proactive,” retail analyst Charcy Evers told The Daily Beast. “It appears very disingenuous, like [VS] is shifting their position all of a sudden and saying that because they hired a transgender or plus-size model, it means they’re ‘inclusive.’”
Evers went on to explain that competitors like Aerie and Third Love have long championed relatable advertising. “Keep this in perspective—Aerie launched their campaign of ‘real women’ in 2014. That’s five years ago. It took Victoria’s Secret five years to [do the same]?”
Elizabeth Shobert, VP of marketing and digital strategy for StyleSage, also sees through the attempted rehab. “Are diverse ads the right thing to do? Sure. Do I think that VS is doing it because their culture has fundamentally changed and they really mean it? Not so sure,” she said, adding the campaign “is still highly stylized” and fairly generic.
While Victoria’s Secret execs pointedly hired models who represent the people they offended last year (check, check, check), the brand has yet to go all-in with their acceptance. According to WWD, Amy Hauk, who runs the brand’s youth line Pink, said at an investor meeting, “I know a lot of 50 year-old women that want to be 20. I have yet to meet a 20-year-old woman that wants to be 50.”
She must have forgotten how old J.Lo, Jennifer Aniston, and Halle Berry are. With that type of mentality, at 42 years old, the brand is showing its age. As Shobert put it, “Victoria’s Secret still has this aura of overt sexiness surrounding it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately there is something about it that still feels dated.”