Keeping It Real

When a trim Queen Latifah appeared in a print ad for Chicago in late March at the same time that a much fuller-figured Latifah performed at the Oscars, it was a rude reminder of the gap between the reality of Americans’ obesity—60 percent of the population is overweight—and the perfect bodies in advertising images.

Chicago distributor Miramax says the weight reduction was due to a computer error, and the performer’s real proportions were quickly reinstated, but Latifah is getting the last laugh. With clients slowly catching on to the potential of the plus-size market, Latifah is now a model for Curvation, a new Vanity Fair lingerie brand for full-figured women. In this and other recent work for plus sizes, marketers are showing vibrant-looking larger women front and center. “Confident on the outside. Curvation underneath,” reads the Latifah ad, which broke in February via ink and co. in New York.

The plus-size market is healthier than women’s apparel as a whole. While plus-size sales were down 3 percent last year to $16.6 billion, the women’s apparel industry was down 6.1 percent, according to NPD Fashionworld, a fashion-research group in Port Washington, N.Y. Last year, Tommy Hilfiger and Eddie Bauer launched plus-size lines, and JC Penney bowed the True Beauty collection by Emme in March. Last month, Sara Lee’s Just My Size broke a TV and print campaign for its plus-size casual clothing out of Publicis in Mid America in Dallas. Fruit of the Loom introduced its Fit for Me lingerie in April books with ads from The Richards Group in Dallas.

“The fact that you recognize [the plus-size market], respect them and talk to them is gold,” says Ted Barton, president and creative at Publicis in Mid America, which won the Just My Size account in September. “There are a lot of them out there, and our society doesn’t recognize them. So if you are able to bring a product to them that benefits them, almost honors them, then they reciprocate it.”

The work emphasizes both fashion and comfort. “Tailored expressly to flatter your figure while keeping the focus on comfort,” read the Fit for Me ads, showing larger women in underwear. “We’ve designed great looking denims … that feel like stretch, but look like the real thing,” says an ad for Just My Size that shows a woman dancing as her beau plays guitar.

The tone of advertising to full-figured women should be “accessible but also aspirational,” says Ceslie Armstrong, editor of Grace Woman magazine, targeted at women 35-54. “There has been the pervasive thought out there that showing a woman at an average size—not large, but average size—then it’s not aspirational. That’s not true. If you look at these models [in Grace Woman], they’re not the average woman walking down the street.”

Demand for plus-size talent is on the rise. Aida Brigman, director of the plus division at New York modeling agency Click, says that just three years ago, the agency had 10-15 plus-size models. Now there are 35.

Grace Media, which owns Grace Woman, also runs a boutique creative shop that consults with agencies on plus-size advertising. “A lot of advertisers are missing the mark, but it’s really a matter of mathematics,” Armstrong says. “If you look at the fact that 68 percent of women in America are size 12 and up, it stands to reason if you’re an advertiser who wants to reach women, why tailor an ad to them that is going to disconnect with them visually?”

When Armstrong launched the magazine a year ago, she says she turned down two ads she felt did not reflect the target audience. One, for a beauty product, showed a 16-year-old girl in a bikini. These days, however, she sees a turnaround. “The quality of ads has dramatically increased,” she says. “[Agencies] are understanding the formula.”

Diane Fannon, a principal at The Richards Group, says the first thing the shop did for the Fit for Me campaign was to ban the widely detested “plus-size” moniker, as most other ads in the category have also done. ” ‘Full figure’ is a flattering way to talk to someone,” she says. “It feels less categorical.” The agency’s main task, she says, was “making sure we stayed on message and were completely honest as to how we portray the consumer, while other brands are looking for the stereotypical size 2.”

Research conducted by Vanity Fair, a unit of VF Corp. in Greensboro, N.C., showed consumers wanted a line of lingerie that was both “sensual and livable,” according to Pam Hardee, director of marketing for the brand. “That really kind of set the whole creative process,” she says. Research also played a role in selecting Latifah as the brand’s spokeswoman. “Latifah created that confidence and drive women wanted to associate themselves with,” Hardee says.

If this doesn’t sound much different from the creative process behind any campaign, well, it’s not—but that in itself is progress. “It’s the same formula that all ad agencies look at when they’re trying to appeal to the consumer,” notes Armstrong. “But [agencies and clients] are doing it in what they consider a new arena.”

While images of full-figured women are more commonplace, the stigma attached to larger sizes lingers. “When plus sizes are available, why don’t they identify that in every single ad?” asks Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld. “It’s not that insulting to the average consumer that, yes, this is available in plus sizes. [Clients] don’t want the image of the product to be taken down a notch. But how many consumers really think that way? It’s a designer mentality, not a consumer mentality.”