Because I’m obliged to watch Lifetime for an hour and a half each week (OK…two hours…I love On the Road with Austin and Santino), I have been subjected again and again to the bombastic, self-important, glittery-lettered jump-cuttery that is the Victoria’s Secret commercial. Right now they’re shilling something called the BIOFIT PUSH-UP (their caps), purported to fit so well that you’ll think it’s custom made (unless, apparently, you’ve got giant tits, in which case, you’re SOL).
Le sigh. Part of what annoys me about these commercials is that, by sheer market share, Victoria’s Secret uses them (and the catalog and the website) to dominate the visual representation of what constitutes sexy in this country. By this, I don’t necessarily mean the models, or even the bras and panties. The models are always attractive. (Fox News, of all places, had a poll asking whether VS should use models larger than 0-4 in their materials, to which 75 percent of people said yes. In a choice comment, “Joe” says he doesn’t want to see “out of shape” people modeling, as if everyone over a size 4 is out of shape. Joe, you’re ignorant.) The bras and panties are fine, I guess. They’re not especially imaginative, and one thing that’s always stood out to me is their homogeneity – you basically choose the fit and can select from one of a preset group of fabrics/colors. Incredibly limited means of exploring one’s own individual take on sexy, something that VS is obviously not interested in.
But I’m wandering pretty far afield. VS dominates the visual representation of what constitutes sexy through the attitudinal assumptions behind the ads. That sexy is aggressive and in your face, that it’s got a “sophisticated” British accent (hilariously, given that the company was founded by some guy out of the Bay Area in the 70s, neatly encapsulated by Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network…contrast VS, for example, with an actual British lingerie company), that it has a sort of pseudo-scientific aspect to it (the world’s most advanced bra…), and that it’s serious, completely humorless.
They’ve basically developed a brand identity for sexy. If someone tells you they shop for lingerie exclusively at VS, you know exactly what she thinks sexy entails. And for all that it has attempted to position itself as upscale and exclusive, it’s in fact to be found in every suburban mall, ubiquitous. Victoria’s Secret is to lingerie as Olive Garden is to Italian food. Overpriced and middle American, the faux Britishness of VS akin to the faux Italianness of OG. Don’t forget that VS is part of Limited Brands, also home to Bath + Body Works, at one time positioned as a faux-folksy heartland shoppe, an image toned down a lot in recent years.
A few years ago, Fast Company published a brief on University of Georgia research about sexual attitudes and sexy ads, finding that men responded positively to sexy ads regardless of the degree to which they have sex-positive attitudes, and that only women with sex-positive attitudes responded positively to the sexy ads. This is really interesting, but I haven’t read the paper myself (it’s not on SSRN) and can’t really draw any conclusions. I mean, I asked S if he found the VS ads sexy and he shrugged. “They’ve got women in underwear,” he said. Does my objection to the portrayal of “sexy” in VS ads imply that I am not sex positive? Or is it just that I don’t find that specific ad sexy? How did the experiment define sexy, and/or control for variance in individual definitions?