What You See is What You Get

This article was published in the September 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

ModCloth, other retailers and lawmakers join forces to champion truth in advertising

Imagine an online community safe enough for two-thirds of the women posting apparel reviews to include personal measurements. It’s available for all to see at ModCloth — as are countless user-generated photos.

It makes no difference the size, the shape or even the garment: The poses are confident, the smiles are sincere, the vibe is welcoming and inclusive. And it all stemmed from a desire to show women as they really are, rather than who they’re “supposed” to be.

This summer marked two years since vintage apparel retailer ModCloth became the first fashion company to sign a pledge stating it would not alter the shape, size, proportion, color and/or physical features of any people featured in its ads. At the time, there were hopes that others would follow suit.

That hasn’t quite been the case, but ModCloth has stayed its course — and grown its community — by sticking to its pledge and sourcing an increasingly diverse group of models.

 Frances Holuba, Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (left) and ModCloth Founder Susan Koger.

 Frances Holuba, Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (left) and ModCloth Founder Susan Koger.

Authentic focus

While the conversation about “realistic beauty” has so far been limited to voluntary action, advocates of the concept have renewed efforts to have Congress place legal restrictions on what retail and apparel brands are allowed to do in advertising.

In February, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., reintroduced the Truth in Advertising Act, a measure that failed when first introduced in 2014. The legislation orders the Federal Trade Commission to develop guidelines for the use of digitally altered photographs or other imagery, and violators could be found guilty of unfair or deceptive practices. The current version has only 13 co-sponsors and has received no hearings or votes, but is being carefully watched by retailers and the advertising industry.

Despite the lack of congressional support, the bill has been endorsed by ModCloth and numerous organizations from the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up to the National Eating Disorders Association. Since 2014, it also has gained support from eight other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, framing the issue as one of public health.

“You would never have an advertisement for a drug that talks about something it can’t really do,” says Lauren Whitehouse, ModCloth’s public relations manager. “That’s a public health issue. And really, all these young women are having these negative perceptions of themselves … . It’s affecting their mental self-image and sometimes their physical health, because we’re misrepresenting what clothes can achieve, and what people’s bodies look like.

“It’s really just asking the FTC to create regulations that could say you can’t materially Photoshop, or they could say that you have to have a disclaimer if you’ve materially Photoshopped a person’s body,” she says. “When you think about it that way, of course that makes sense.”

But how much sense does it make for other retailers? At ModCloth, the focus has been on authenticity since co-founder and chief creative officer Susan Koger launched the company from her college dorm room in 2002. As such, it’s challenging to provide before-and-after results of such a change — though a 2015 swimwear campaign featuring company employees did bring a 25 percent lift in sales over the year prior.

Aerie, the American Eagle Outfitters lingerie and intimate apparel sub-brand, has been on a body-positivity trajectory of its own. The company has been celebrating “aerie Real” since 2014 and there have been special initiatives such as “Love the Swim You’re In,” asking consumers to post their unretouched photos and/or videos on social media.

“It’s not just a campaign anymore. It’s about embracing all of the wonderful things that make us unique and, most importantly, it’s about loving yourself inside and out.”

Jennifer Foyle

“It’s not just a campaign anymore,” says Jennifer Foyle, Aerie global brand president. “It’s become a mindset and the message behind all we do. It’s about embracing all of the wonderful things that make us unique and, most importantly, it’s about loving yourself inside and out.”

The company recently announced model Iskra Lawrence as its confident body-positive aerie Real Role Model, as well as a “Share Your Spark” campaign to focus on “what’s beneath the skin” rather than on “flaws or curves.”

The result: “Our customers have been responding and engaging positively to our brand message since we launched the aerie Real campaign, and we have seen a positive impact in sales,” Foyle says. Aerie reported 20 percent sales growth in fiscal year 2015, and 32 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Target also has taken a body-positive stance with its 2016 #NOFOMO (No Fear of Missing Out) campaign; it’s not about unretouched photos, but rather features swimwear models in a variety of sizes. The company came under fire a couple of years ago for a high-profile mishap involving an altered image; this effort might create goodwill without re-stoking those fires.

Turning the tide

ModCloth’s Whitehouse is hopeful that more retailers will see that presenting honest, authentic, diverse representations of women isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s also good business. The 2015 swimwear campaign didn’t just lift sales in plus-sized suits, she says.

“That was a great eye-opening experience for us, that our customer really does want to see that. We like to say aspiration can also be inspiration,” she says. “Women can be inspired and be aspirational, and also feel represented.”

That sense of representation — and belonging — is at the core of the ModCloth community.

“Women want to help other women find their best size and their best self. We’ve given them a place to do so.”

Lauren Whitehouse

“ModCloth is this very optimistic, supportive community,” Whitehouse says. “You can see that in our blog, and you can see it in the posts that people make through our social channels. I think women want to help other women find their best size and their best self. That’s why they post their measurements — to help other women in the community. … They love helping other women. Women naturally want to do that. What we’ve given them is a place to do so.”

A growing number of celebrities — Zendaya, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Kerry Washington among them — have called out publications for digitally altering their appearance as well, currying further public favor and drawing more attention to the issue. If and when the tide will turn on a grand scale remains to be seen, however.

For now, Ros-Lehtinen and her congressional peers will forge ahead. She and Koger hosted a packed event in Washington, D.C., in June to raise awareness for the effort; Ros-Lehtinen’s granddaughter was there, and the representative took the opportunity to share what more realistic ideals of beauty could mean for future generations.

“For too long,” she says, “young women and men have tried to conform to the manipulated body images which advertisers use to sell products. I introduced the Truth in Advertising Act because these young people should know that they do not have to strive to reach this unattainable bar.

“While many know that the ads are artificially altered, many are still adversely impacted by trying to attain this distorted body image,” Ros-Lehtinen says.

“Instead of continuing negative impacts, I’m hoping this bill will bring everyone to the table and help young women and men strive for a healthy body image instead of a body that exists only on a computer screen or in a magazine.”