Perspective: I Gotta Wear Shades

Celebrities made Ray-Ban sunglasses cool. So why is the brand touting unknowns?

The day that someone writes the definitive manual on how to be cool, there’ll have to be a chapter devoted to sunglasses. And while every brand from Ralph Lauren to Tiffany & Co. makes shades these days, all of them should be on bent knee to Ray-Ban. Never mind that the brand started out as basic, glare-reducing sunglasses for pilots. From the day in 1945 when General Douglas MacArthur stormed the Philippines wearing his Aviators, Ray-Bans were the coolest accessory on the planet. And just in case a five-star general who kicked ass in the Pacific wasn’t a sufficient celebrity endorsement, Ray-Ban soon had plenty more: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, JFK, Roy Orbison and, sporting his putting-green tan at right, golf legend Arnold Palmer.

All of which has left the legendary brand with a unique marketing dynamic—good and bad. While droves of celebrities wearing your product as they duck into limousines is highly romantic, powerful stuff, it’s also a hard habit to break—as the 2012 ad, opposite, attests. In 2007, Ray-Ban pulled a 180-degree turn in its marketing, not just by eschewing celebrities in favor of (gasp) ordinary people, but by encouraging them not to “hide” behind dark lenses at all. The move left some observers scratching their heads. One of them is vintage-eyewear expert Jordan Silver, who runs Silver Lining Opticians in Manhattan. “You used to hide behind sunglasses, and now Ray-Ban says don’t hide,” Silver observed. “But the thing is, that was the best part about sunglasses—that you get to hide.”

Silver’s point is an important one because sunglasses are about image more than function. Consumers wear them because they want to look cool. And who teaches us what cool looks like? Why, celebrities of course. Take Mr. Palmer in this 1969 ad. Sure, he was 40 years old and probably lacked washboard abs, but it didn’t matter. His personal style (white collars, soft cardigans, a razor-edged pleat in his khakis) almost singlehandedly reinvented golf as a game for young hipsters—and the design of Palmer’s frames was every bit as fearless as his stroke. “He was living the life of a mid-century jetsetter,” Silver said. “And he’s wearing an outfit like a French film director. The frames are weird, but they’re making such a strong statement.”

In a sense, Ray-Ban’s “Never Hide” campaign is still trying to send that message by celebrating personal style and nonconformity. But using relative unknowns to do it (such as rapper R.A. the Rugged Man, shown opposite) is a tricky thing. The trouble, Silver explained, is that the ad knocks the legs out from under its own argument. First, telling consumers to “never hide” behind sunglasses eliminates a major reason consumers buy them. “You want that mystique of hiding in plain sight,” Silver said. Second, while Palmer’s windshield-sized shades are pretty bizarre, they’re far bolder than the “very average-looking” shades our rap hero’s got on. Finally, while the Ray-Ban’s new campaign has a strong social-media component—encouraging the public to submit their own photos—it still faces the fundamental difficulty of using relative unknowns to inspire people.

“When you compare the two, it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “The new ad wants you to think about being an individual, but the old ad shows you an individual.”