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Underwear, Activism and the Crushing Boredom of Modern Marketing
At Victoria's Secret, activism is out and the supermodels the company ditched two years ago are once again cool
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As I prepare to emigrate to Australia next week, lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret is back with a new campaign after its failed rebrand in 2021. The original supermodels it dismissed two years ago are once again cool. This seemed an ideal time to share this essay from the Peak Notions archive. It was first published on Patreon in 2021, but Peak Notions now has ten times the readership it had back then, so odds are you haven’t seen or listened to this column before. I’ll be back next week!
Let me begin by reassuring you that this isn’t really a column about impractical underwear. As Victoria’s Secret announced a radical change to its image and marketing approach this week, I was overwhelmed by a crushing wave of boredom that it seemed mentally healthiest to work out of my system here on Patreon. The company is moving from supermodels in wings and stringy underpants to what essentially amounts to a high council of seven diverse celebrity activists talking about social justice, and a smattering of charity initiatives. Both are modes by which the company can sell lip gloss and underwear, so nothing has really changed. There is nothing unvirtuous about selling people products they want to buy. The trend for companies to market primarily by either apologising for their own existence (but not sincerely enough to prove they hold their own professed principles by ceasing to trade altogether) or attempting to distract from it is thoroughly cynical and transparent. There is something a touch suspicious in a company developing a sudden deeply felt social conscience-based marketing strategy precisely after losing eleven per cent of its market stake over five years. Just a touch.
The Victoria’s Secret ‘Angels’ – a term the brand first generated in 1997 and which encompassed its kitsch, utterly American and slightly provocative vanilla softcore sexuality – have always been supermodels of the most ‘aspirational’ kind. These are people like Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell. They are the Gisele Bündchens and Karolina Kurkovas of the world. In short, they are what models tend to be – people who have won the genetic lottery, or been born into immense wealth, or that sweetest of spots, a bit of both.
Incidentally, having worked as an editor in the beauty industry for years now, I have spent time around models backstage at fashion weeks, and occasionally found myself at some event or other where a supermodel would be brought in by a brand to be interviewed, or for decorative purposes. She would glide around a room in five inch heels, her soft phosphorescence an unspoken implication that using the brand’s shampoo or foot cream or whatever could bring the average woman somehow closer to a hundred pound twenty year-old who is five foot eleven and boasts enough voluminous, glossy natural hair to generously stuff a couple of double mattresses.
Heidi Klum sports gigantic wings (a natural accompaniment to sparkly underwear) in the Victoria's Secret 2003 show
An advertising landscape made up solely of women who look like that isn’t particularly healthy. I think that most women want an idea of what a garment or product might look like on their own body, or what it might realistically do for them. The thing is, though, that we increasingly do not exist in an advertising landscape where everyone looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, so the job market for Victoria’s Secret models has become a lot less lucrative.
Originally launched in 1977 as a store for men who wanted to purchase lingerie without feeling all weird and creepy, Victoria’s Secret’s advertising was initially oriented toward men. Like many reading this column may, I do indeed find that slightly weird and creepy – not necessarily the idea of men purchasing underwear as a gift, but the idea of an entire chain of stores orienting their identity and advertising strategy around that concept, as though women don’t buy underwear (or at least the impractical kind). Still, 1977 was well over forty years ago. It was a year in which fondue and quiche Lorraine were still considered exotic and cultivated dining options, so things change with time and that’s good.
To reorient itself and continue profiting in a market that has left it utterly behind, Victoria’s Secret is doing what it did when it was first established – trying to assess the direction in which the wind is blowing, and following while making a lot of noise about being different. It’s doing this the way so many companies do, by ‘Woke-Washing’ – adopting progressive language and policies as a sales tactic. If supermodels won’t sell, politicised messaging claiming to empower the women they’ve been making feel ugly for the past several decades might. Woke-Washing essentially sees companies like Victoria’s Secret marketing through activism rather than aesthetic aspiration, but it’s just as tired and arguably less honest.
In a recent press release, the company announced its new direction, which will see it ditch the aforementioned ‘Angels’ – casting them out into a cold that will likely prove fatal to people whose former job strictly obliged them to maintain a dangerously low body fat percentage – in favour of (you guessed it) activists. Those models who starved themselves for days in advance of the annual Victoria’s Secret runway show and made billions for the company (which is certainly an accomplishment) can shove off, because now Victoria’s Secret wants “accomplished women who share a common passion to drive positive change.” That being a change from everything the company did and stood for until very recently.
The sneering tone here is matched only by that of the articles that have smattered the news cycle this week. Even the ones that are distrustful of the company’s cynical about face seem to agree that disdaining the women whose image was used to build that company in the first place is only a good thing. This doesn’t feel like a particularly sensitive reaction. Indeed, this whole scenario sees the company and media apparently vilifying the very beauty standards that both leveraged for profit for decades. Discarding the women who work for a company, then declaring them unaccomplished and no longer ‘relevant’ is hardly a feminist first move for a company aiming to “transform how we connect with and show up for women.”
While we’re on it, this sort of coded language is a typical symptom of performative wokeness. ‘Show up for’. What does that mean? What is the substantive content of that phrase? The press releases from the company and its new activist ambassadors was full of this sort of hollow lingo. One of the seven new brand partners, model Valentina Sampaio, ended her statement announcing the partnership on Instagram with the following sentence: “Together we can raise our vibration and catalyze positive change throughout the world.” It brought me back to Oscar Wilde’s an Ideal Husband, when Mrs. Cheveley says “Wonderful woman, Lady Markby, isn't she? Talks more and says less than anybody I ever met. She is made to be a public speaker.” That’s not to be unkind about Sampaio herself – the tone of the short statement hums of publicists and PR input. The point is that there are such powerful incentives to talk without saying anything that noisy, performative language of this particular kind is as ubiquitous as it is empty.
Claims to activism have social traction now. Whatever activism actually is – it is so vague a term that it now seems to include both concerted, meaningful, organised work toward improvement and just loudly complaining about things you dislike while heavily gesturing at your own virtue on social media). Activism has become aspirational in the way that beauty is and always has been. There is power in both, as Victoria’s Secret executives well know. Is activism-marketed underwear actually more appealing to women than (albeit exclusionary) aesthetic aspiration? Do women want to buy products that are sold via utopian messaging or the language of victimisation? I suppose we will find out. I often find myself overlooking brands’ virtue signalling when buying something rather than being drawn in by it, because it’s annoying and almost always insincere, ultimately ignorant, or some stagnant cocktail of both.
The reason it is annoying lies largely in its mundanity. I wrote about this in a previous column on Woke Capitalism which featured, among other bizarre and patronising virtue marketing stunts, a ‘gay sandwich’. Part of the Woke Capitalism or Woke-Washing approach involves a brand positioning itself as a bastion of progress standing in opposition to a general toxic complacency and unjust, oppressive mainstream culture. The problem there– apart from the suggestion that a company that makes lip balm and bras going on “an incredible journey to become the world’s leading advocate for women” is anything other than hysterical gibberish – is that so many brands are now engaged in Woke-Washing and Woke Capitalism that it is mainstream. You are not engaging in radical or resistant methods or acts if the majority of establishment thought, media, academia and government agree with you. You’re just mainstream. This is what Victoria’s Secret used to be and this, ultimately, is what it aims to be again. The route to get there just looks a little different these days.
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