Advertisers Embrace a Plus-Size Reality

Larry Woodard explores what appears to be a new trend in advertising.

ByColumn By LARRY D. WOODARD<br/><a href=" " target="external">Graham Stanley Advertising</a> CEO and President
April 20, 2010, 10:52 PM

Aug. 5, 2010 <br/> NEW YORK -- Noted French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier launched an advertising campaign last week featuring plus-size model Crystal Renn.

Always on the cutting edge, Gaultier upped the ante by passing over a long list of the hottest models in favor of Renn. The move was heralded around the Fatosphere (look it up, it's real) as a major breakthrough in the growing acceptance of plus-size models.

Is this the beginning of a major shift in the way women are portrayed in advertising or an attempt to grab the attention of consumers in a down economy? More likely this is merely an accurate reflection of reality in a nation where 60 percent of women are overweight and in the market for size-14 clothing.

Earlier this year, the Girl Scouts launched a campaign promoting positive body image using successful plus-size models as spokespeople. From the award-winning, long-running Dove Campaign for Real Beauty using real women of all sizes and ages, to recent photo spreads in major fashion magazines such as Vogue and V, heavier, curvier models are everywhere.

It is an interesting dilemma. On one hand we are a nation going the wrong way with respect to weight. Sixty percent of women are overweight and a third obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. We want to be healthy and we don't want to promote unhealthy lifestyles.

On the other hand, women are getting larger not just in weight but in height and the reality is, as women become more empowered, they are increasingly rejecting the notion they have to pursue what for many women is an unachievable size and shape.

So, in the face of an apparel industry that has contracted during the recession and the real facts from companies such as Alvanon -- a fitting company with the industry's largest body scan data-base indicating that the plus-size market is underserved -- is advertising beginning to relax the rules and embrace the new American physique?

Fatshionistas Have Their Say

According to Fatshionistas (yes, another real word used to describe plus-size fashion bloggers), the time has come and the Internet and social media are enabling online retailers and specialty shops within brick-and-mortar retailers to reach and market to women hungry to buy fashionable clothes that fit.

Analogous to the development of no-gap-in-the-waist jeans that ignited the jean industry 30 years ago, an emphasis on plus-size women would increase the number of designers and companies and begin to solve the problem of just making the current designs bigger. Many plus-size consumers complain they have to purchase to fit the largest parts of their bodies, resulting in ill-fitting clothes.

Younger consumers, generally more at ease with their bodies and determined to wear the styles they like, are leading the way, demanding that their favorite clothes come in larger sizes. They look at personalities such as Kim Kardashian (who, by the way, does not consider herself plus-size) and Queen Latifah and see curvier, larger women being fashionable and attractive.

A recent study by Arizona State University concluded that advertisements that feature plus-size women are unlikely to work based on self-esteem issues. The researchers believed that brands would not gain market share using heavy models in their ads.

Within the advertising industries, efforts to use larger models have met with spotty success. Earlier this year, an ad for Lane Bryant featuring a plus-size model in lingerie was rejected by television networks and branded as "too racy" (the Victoria's Secret ads are, of course, OK. You have my word on that and I would sign an affidavit).

The long-running, award-winning Dove campaign has its detractors, there is even a Facebook page for people who dislike the campaign. And even Gaultier's ad was criticized: Many people believe that Renn's recent weight loss no longer qualifies her to be a plus-size model.

Reality Will Soon Set In

I predict that nothing that has gone on in the past matters. I can't prove it but I believe the die is cast. Gen-Xers accepted body art, Millennials embrace it. More women behind the camera and in executive positions will result in a more accurate representation of the product and the buyer.

Function and common sense will ultimately temper vanity enough to usher in a new standard for advertising. Models will still be beautiful and idealized but closer to the reality.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Graham Stanley Advertising, a full-service advertising agency based in New York City. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.

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