AdAge: TikTok stars and wheelchair dance team join Aerie’s body positivity push

Watch the newest campaign for American Eagle’s lingerie and athletic line

By: Sydney Gold | Link to article 

Watch the newest campaign for American Eagle’s lingerie and athletic line

Aerie, American Eagle Outfitters’ intimate and lifestyle clothing brand that pioneered body-positive advertising in teen fashion seven years ago, is calling on a new cast of endorsers to push its “real” message.

A new fall campaign debuted today featuring actress Antonia Gentry, singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini, TikTok creators the NaeNaeTwins, wheelchair dance team the Rollettes, as well as Aly Raisman, the former Olympic gymnast who’s been with the brand since 2018. The national campaign includes a video featuring the stars on beaches, eating takeout, dancing and proclaiming what makes them “Aerie real.” The brand is also calling on customers to get involved in the campaign by submitting their own videos for a chance to be featured in future campaigns. The campaign will run in digital media and in stores.

The effort, called “#AerieREAL Voices,” was produced in-house and continues the “Real” campaign that first debuted in 2014 and featured unretouched models with diverse body types. It was considered a breakthrough approach at the time, with so many of Aerie’s competitors still pushing more superficial messages. For instance, Victoria Secret was hosting an annual lingerie fashion show drawing nearly ten thousand eyes and some of the world’s most exclusive talent. Apparel brand Brandy Melville plugged “one size (small) fits most” clothing, while Abercrombie & Fitch ran ads starring Hollywood’s newest batch of young talent.

Aerie’s approach was “a risk,” says the brand’s senior VP of brand marketing, Stacey McCormick. But the risk paid dividends and uprooted the way clothing brands advertise to Gen Z consumers, while catapulting Aerie from American Eagle’s in-house swim and intimate section to a powerful brand with its own identity.

“I attribute this whole body positivity movement to Aerie,” says Gabriella Santaniello, brand strategist and founder and CEO of independent retail research firm A Line Partners. “They were the first out there with real life models…It just started something and really hit a nerve with customers.”

“Gen Z is about inclusivity, and they don’t care if however you identify is .001% of the population. They still want you included,” she adds. “If you ignore that, I mean, you ignore that to your detriment.”

Other fashion brands have followed Aerie’s lead, including Victoria’s Secret, which overhauled its entire marketing approach earlier this year, including adding endorsers such as soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and body advocate Paloma Elsesser. Legacy brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister have also shifted towards this style of marketing over the past few years, tackling body positivity and fighting against bullying in campaigns.

The approach is found in other categories, too. Several direct-to-consumer brands launched more recently, such as  Parade, Billie, and Glossier, have an element of social responsibility baked into their ethos, be it size diversity, realistic advertisements, or inclusive model selection. Of course, Dove set the standard way back in 2004 with its  “Real Beauty” campaign.

Ads that prioritize realistic beauty standards still have to sell products, and real beauty is still a kind of beauty, albeit a more diverse interpretation of a formerly narrow standard. Charcy Evers, a futurist and social impact strategist, notes that the moniker of “real” beauty still places the idea of good looks at the center of the conversation, opting for body positivity over the perhaps more uncomfortable and radical position of body neutrality.

“I think a lot of people are jumping on sustainability and inclusivity and diversity right now as more, you know, just formality, because they have to,” says Evers. “As opposed to, it’s really intrinsic to their brand. And I think that that will become crystal clear for brands that do not kind of walk the walk, but just talk the talk.”

Aerie has an advantage because it has been pushing the message for a while. It has paid off in the form of stellar sales results. “We’ve seen this rapid pace of growth, this twenty-six consecutive quarters of double digit growth,” says McCormick. Despite the pandemic and decline of malls, Aerie plans to open 87 new stores this year.

The Real People Behind #AerieREAL

In an interview, Raisman said she had been interested in Aerie a couple of years before debuting in a 2018 ad for the brand, “because I had seen their no retouching campaign and I just thought it was so amazing.” The year 2018 was a notable one for Raisman because of her testimony against former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar is serving a 60-year prison sentence for child pornography and was accused of sexual abuse by over 250 women.

“I think a lot of survivors, myself included, you know, your relationship with your body can sometimes change after you’ve been through something really traumatic,” says Raisman. “I think that being in gymnastics, in that sport, and then going through abuse, it definitely has impacted my relationship with my body.” Raisman says joining the Aerie team and participating in photoshoots has been a great outlet for her to heal her relationship with her body, and form friendships.

Chelsie Hill, founder of The Rollettes, who is also featured in the campaign, has a background as an athlete, growing up as a competitive dancer before a car accident rendered her paralyzed from the waist down at age 17. She founded the Rollettes to “empower women with disabilities to live boundlessly and shift perspective through dance.” Collaborating with Aerie was a “more than perfect” way to provide people with disabilities representation and empowerment, particularly in a landscape often lacking representations of people with disabilities, she says.

“Everyone is always like, oh, it’s all body types. These companies are for all body types. but for so long, we never saw all body types,” she says.

There is still room to grow for Aerie, and for all brands looking to incorporate representation into their marketing. Hill says she is eager for the day when a major brand teams up with people with disabilities to create not just representative campaigns, but clothing that’s accessible for people with varying levels of ability—like “clothing for the disabled community to work out, or clothing for them with different snap buttons or Velcro.”

This story has been updated with the exact number of stores Aerie plans to open in 2021.