Aerie, American Eagle's lingerie brand, won widespread acclaim in 2014 for the launch of the Aerie Real campaign, which aimed to promote body positivity by featuring unretouched "models of all sizes" in its advertising.
The retailer is in the news again, this time on the heels of revenue reports indicating a 32% jump in first-quarter sales. Almost immediately, American Eagle's media-savvy PR department attributed this impressive spike to Aerie's ongoing no-Photoshop policy, and multiple media outlets were quick to affirm this narrative, with everyone from Mashable to Us Weekly applauding the brand for being authentic, inclusive, and challenging beauty standards.
I'm not convinced.
Of course, I'm not denying that Aerie's sales are up. Financial reports of this nature are a matter of public record, and I absolutely believe that Aerie is having an amazing year. But what's up for debate is whether those increased sales are in fact a direct result of their stance on photoshopping. (I've reached out to Aerie for comment and, as of press time, have not received a response.)
In reality, there are a myriad of potential factors–instead of, or at least in addition to, the no-Photoshop rule—that could have contributed to Aerie's increased sales. Let's examine some possibilities:
1. If reports from other companies are any indication, the lingerie industry is enjoying higher sales across the board. Agent Provocateur, Wolford, Wacoal, Hanesbrands, Bravissimo, Etam, and Soma Intimates have all reported sales increases within the past year. Even smaller or newly established companies—like LF Intimates, Bluebella, and Naked—are reporting extraordinary revenue figures. Yet none of these companies have adopted Aerie's Photoshop-free policy. Is it possible that Aerie's success is simply part of a broader trend in intimate apparel, especially as the global economy continues to recover from the recession of the late 2000s?
2. Aerie has wisely doubled down on the trendy bralette category, with the garments accounting for nearly a third of their bra section (82 out of 263 items). Bralettes are not only a high-profit-margin item, especially compared to underwire bras, but they're also an inexpensive splurge perfectly suited to the high-turnover, buy-it-while-you-can world of fashion. Even American Eagle has admitted in previous interviews that bralettes are one of the top contributors to Aerie's growth.
3. American Eagle has closed 15% of their stores in the last two years, including at least 34 Aerie stores (there are currently 148 Aerie locations). Store closures are meant to plug leaks in revenue. Done well, they raise profits and reduce operating costs and complications. Aerie may be reaping the benefits of those closings.
Aerie has an excellent PR team, and PR is all about crafting a message: You tell people what to think of your brand. But while the apparent karmic rewards of the #AerieREAL campaign make a great headline, there are too many variables at play here to single out their no-Photoshop policy as the single most likely sales booster.
And if Aerie Real hopes to attribute the brand's success to its models, then perhaps it's time to be "real" about what this success suggests. Aerie's viral ad campaigns aren't an indication of the public's thirst for "real women." If anything, Aerie's imagery has become even more regressive in recent seasons.
The very first year of Aerie Real, the 2014 campaign, showcased a fairly wide range of body types and ethnicities, yet 2015's campaign starred Emma Roberts, a young, thin, white, blonde celebrity. The 2016 campaign, with Iskra Lawrence at the helm, doubles down on Aerie's preoccupation with the traditional all-American blonde bombshell archetype, a look that's been in vogue since the 1940s. The models currently featured in Aerie's online store are also noticeably more homogenous than in previous years.
What standard of beauty is Aerie challenging here? They've placed themselves at the forefront of the body positivity movement, yet they're relying on the very same imagery that this movement was created to disrupt. At this point, Aerie is arguably even less diverse than Victoria's Secret. At least VS has Jasmine Tookes and Lais Ribeiro, who are black, on their model roster.
Dropping Photoshop makes for a great story, but Aerie isn't proof that unairbrushed images sell lingerie. Aerie is proof that spin sells. It's the Emperor's New Clothes of advertising: Tell people everything's changed while hardly changing anything at all.
Cora Harrington is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict, a fashion blog dedicated to intimate apparel. She has been writing about lingerie for seven years. Follow her on Twitter @lingerie_addict.
Cora Harrington is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict, a fashion blog dedicated to intimate apparel.