Big brands show beauty of di­ver­sity

By beat­ing the phys­i­cal chal­lenges, these ad­ver­tis­ing stars are role mod­els for gen­er­a­tions to come.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Zlati Meyer USA TO­DAY

You’d think Ra­jee Aerie was des­tined to model for Amer­i­can Ea­gle Out­fit­ters’ un­der­wear, swim­suits and leisurewea­r brand, Aerie, just based on the co­in­ci­dence of her name match­ing the brand’s. The 34-year-old Chicagoan was in the 2018 ad cam­paign with a blue cam­ou­flage bra and match­ing leg­gings. ❚ And her crutches. They are vis­i­ble part­ners in her role as model – and role model.

“If I had these role mod­els or seen this im­agery when I was younger, I’d feel like I was more val­ued and have a bet­ter sense of my­self,” said Aerie, who’d con­tracted po­lio as a child in In­dia. “I hope to cre­ate that sense of be­long­ing for younger gen­er­a­tions, so they know they can as­pire to be (any­thing), no mat­ter who they are.”

She re­called the pain she en­dured as a teenager, flip­ping through mag­a­zines and feel­ing in­vis­i­ble – and con­trasted it with her ela­tion upon hear­ing she’d landed the gig and later, scored a bill­board in Times Square.

She was among a slew of young women in­cluded in the Aerie brand’s ad­ver­tis­ing who aren’t tra­di­tion­ally seen as mod­els, in­clud­ing in­di­vid­u­als with a wheel­chair, an in­sulin pump and an os­tomy bag.

A grow­ing num­ber of ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing ef­forts are show­cas­ing a wider va­ri­ety of beauty. The trend stretches from the 2018 Ger­ber baby, Lu­cas War­ren, who has Down Syn­drome, and Tar­get’s new swim­suit model Kiara Wash­ing­ton, who has a

pros­thetic leg, to Dian­dra For­rest, who has al­binism, mod­el­ing for the cos­met­ics com­pany Wet ’ n Wild, and Jil­lian Mer­cado, who uses a wheel­chair, pos­ing for Nord­strom.

When 18-year-old Eve­lyn McCon­nell saw pho­tos of model Abby Sams, she was both shocked and ex­cited and im­me­di­ately shared the im­ages with her friends on so­cial me­dia. She saw her­self re­flected in the Aerie ad fea­tur­ing Sams, who uses a wheel­chair like she does.

“It’s very much changed my per­spec­tive of them as a busi­ness,” said McCon­nell, a high school se­nior from Al­toona, Penn­syl­va­nia. “Just see­ing that this busi­ness sup­ports peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and pre­sents us as mod­els, it meant a lot of me.”

This in­creased rep­re­sen­ta­tion in both prod­uct pack­ag­ing and pro­mo­tion comes as other forms of in­clu­siv­ity, such as di­verse eth­nic back­grounds and body types, have be­gun to take hold. In the same way, we are see­ing more LGBTQ cou­ples and mul­tira­cial fam­i­lies in ads, im­ages of all sorts of peo­ple are now front and cen­ter on store shelves and in ads.

‘It will help the bot­tom line’

Broad­en­ing the def­i­ni­tion of beauty comes down to sales strat­egy. Cre­ate enough buzz with in­no­va­tive im­ages, and the com­pa­nies get at­ten­tion. Brand aware­ness kicks in when peo­ple go shop­ping and choose where to make their pur­chases, what the in­dus­try calls con­ver­sion.

“Ad­ver­tis­ers want to sell, but they’re think­ing about the broader im­age,” said Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor David Gal. “It’s not just ‘This ad will lift sales X per­cent.’ They want the brand per­ceived as pro­gres­sive, cut­ting edge, dif­fer­ent. Ul­ti­mately, it will help the bot­tom line.”

The po­ten­tial to res­onate with con­sumers not used to see­ing them­selves re­flected in ad­ver­tis­ing and on pack­ag­ing is huge. More than 40 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have dis­abil­i­ties, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent U.S. Cen­sus num­bers – but that num­ber doesn’t in­clude mil­lions more who have ill­nesses, such as der­ma­to­log­i­cal and au­toim­mune dis­eases, and use as­sis­tive med­i­cal equip­ment.

“The mes­sage with that was ev­ery­one should em­brace their real selves. This is our com­mu­nity. This is real women, so rep­re­sent your­self,” said Aerie’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing, Stacey McCormick. “Us­ing real women re­gard­less of size, abil­ity, dis­abil­ity, the cus­tomer feels more con­nected to these im­ages, which in­creases con­ver­sion, which in­creases sales.”

In­clu­sive ad­ver­tis­ing and pack­ag­ing help com­pa­nies ap­peal to a di­verse cus­tomer base and be viewed as so­cially re­spon­si­ble, ac­cord­ing to Gal.

“Part of it is eth­nic di­ver­sity has al­ready be­come the base­line to be rel­e­vant for a lot of ad­ver­tis­ers and mar­keters. They’re say­ing, ‘What is the next area to push the en­ve­lope?’ ” he said. “They’re look­ing for new ways to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves and show they’re ahead of where their com­peti­tors are in terms of be­ing pro­gres­sive.”

While the move to more main­stream print mod­el­ing is rel­a­tively new, TV ads have been more of a pi­o­neer.

The big­gest early splash likely came from the Diet Pepsi ad in 1991 fea­tur­ing leg­endary mu­si­cian Ray Charles, who was blind. Since then, other ex­am­ples in­clude the Ap­ple ad in 1995 fea­tur­ing ac­tress Mar­lee Matlin, who is deaf; the 2014 Du­ra­cell com­mer­cial star­ring NFL player Der­rick Cole­man, who also is deaf, and last year’s Dori­tos Su­per Bowl ad, star­ring ac­tors Mor­gan Free­man and Peter Din­klage, who has dwarfism.

Most re­cent is the pack­age of the new­est cookie to join the Girl Scouts line-up, gluten-free Caramel Choco­late Chip, which de­buted ear­lier this month. The front fea­tures three girls play­ing to­gether and at the cen­ter of the smil­ing trio is Nicklya Brantley, who has vi­tiligo, a disease that causes patches of skin to lose their color.

“We’re try­ing to con­vey that girls come in ev­ery size, ev­ery shape, from ev­ery com­mu­nity,” said Lynn God­frey, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s chief mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer.

McCon­nell, the teenager, said she hasn’t made it to Aerie at the nearby Logan Val­ley Mall but plans to go soon. She views sup­port­ing the brand as a way of fight­ing ableism, dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. And she doesn’t care what’s mo­ti­vat­ing this and other ad cam­paigns; she prefers to fo­cus on the big­ger pic­ture.

“It’s ab­so­lutely some­thing they have done to serve their com­pany, but at the same time, it ben­e­fits not only the mod­els with dis­abil­i­ties who are get­ting paid and be­ing seen (but) es­pe­cially young girls with dis­abil­i­ties who are able to see them­selves,” McCon­nell said. “Even if it doesn’t come from a gen­uine place, it’s still help­ful.”

SHAHOLLY AY­ERS BY AP

AERIE

Peo­ple not tra­di­tion­ally thought of as mod­els are in­creas­ingly part of ma­jor ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns, such as Ra­jee Aerie, left, who ap­pears in Amer­i­can Ea­gle Out­fit­ters ads, and other women and chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties.

2014 PHOTO/ GETTY IM­AGES FOR GQ

Model Alex Min­sky, a for­mer Marine, lost his leg in a bomb blast in Afghanista­n in 2009.

KEVIN HA­GEN/AP

OSHKOSH B’GOSH

GETTY IM­AGES

A model for Teen Vogue.

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