What’s sexy has changed.
Think about it.
Just over a decade ago, consumers were inundated with overtly sexual imagery.
Abercrombie & Fitch was known for its extremely carnal imagery. The advertising frequently featured nearly-naked models in provocative positions.
Abercrombie has recently toned down its image to be practically lukewarm. And retailers that have continued to stay overtly sexy – like Victoria’s Secret – have received criticism for bordering on the pornographic.
One brand, though not a retailer, that appears to have evolved is Playboy. The company has eliminated nudity from its publications, arguably as a response to the widespread availability of naked bodies these days. It’s cheap or even free for many people, thanks to the internet.
“That battle has been fought and won … you’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Playboy CEO Scott Flanders toldThe New York Timesat the time.
But Playboy is a brand built on selling sex. So to maintain its status as the beacon of all things sexy, it needs to adapt to the newly established pillars of temptation.
As a result of the digital revolution, women are becoming more empowered to own their sexiness. Now retailers just have to adapt, Ruth Bernstein, chief strategic officer of the image-making agency Yard, told Business Insider.
Bernstein pointed to the cover of Playboy’s first edition without fully nude women, which demonstrated a woman taking a Snapchat of herself. Because she’s choosing to take the photo and it is through her view, it’s sexy, Bernstein said.
Bernstein compared this with Maxim’s recent cover featuring plus-size model Ashley Graham, which, she said, while progressive in its own way, looked “dated.”
The difference, Bernstein said, was that Playboy was “serving up women to men, but through a more empowered lens versus a more traditional lens.”
And that lens is what retailers need to grasp.
- Facebook/Victoria’s Secret
The move away from traditional ideas about sex means sexiness needs to be more than just a naked body.
Young people, like the teen Generation Z, specifically are having a growing influence on the way retailers position sexiness; they demand a message. Vapid sexuality falls flat on them.
“They don’t respond to traditional notions of beauty or even sexuality,” Bernstein said. “There is a reason that the Aerie campaigns that are not retouched are doing well. They are making a statement, changing an industry, and are still aspirational.”
Another variant on the “new sexy” is self-acceptance.
“It’s not about your shape – it’s about the way you feel,” Bernstein said.
- Zackery Michael/Abercrombie & Fitch
But entirely forgoing sexiness isn’t the answer to winning over consumers.
For instance, Abercrombie’s latest campaign (featuring the bearded Alex Libby) was met with mixed reviews from consumers. The ad does show that Abercrombie is changing as it attempts to revive itself.
American Apparel ditched its trademark sexiness, but sales have plunged since the shift. American Apparel has said it plans to debut a revised version of itself to reflect the changing landscape of fashion and sexuality.
“You know, marketing is fluid, everything evolves, and fashion has evolved over the past 10 years,” American Apparel’s senior vice president of marketing, Cynthia Erland, said in a recent interview with Adweek. “It’s definitely going to be gritty, real, independent, and revolutionary, with young artists. It may be sexual – it may not. It will be how they freely express themselves.”
Bernstein said these stark fluctuations were something of a “pendulum” – going to another extreme as a brand attempts to identify what it truly is. “I think what we find is that they will find a middle ground,” she said.
All of that could be a good start – as sexuality still sells. Bernstein pointed to Reformation and Nasty Gal as two brands that have captured the sort of sexiness that resonates with millennials.
“What is truly sexy is the key, and shifts along with the culture and every generation,” Bernstein said in the fall. “When you get it right, it still absolutely works and sells. The trick is to understanding that sexy has evolved.”