Given the 35 or so years that Victoria’s Secret has been producing ads and catalogues, the intimate apparel retailer has made a habit of capitalizing on aesthetic effects to highlight the efficacies of its brand.

Causing every red-blooded American male, particularly those of college age and above, to really, really appreciate a good efficacy or two. It might be objectifying, it might be sexist, but those ideas work both ways: Victoria’s Secret knows what men respond to (and women, too), or the company wouldn’t continue to run the same type of ads, month after month, for decades.

Recently, however, the underwear giant started a Spring ad campaign, “Bright Young Things”, which some felt targeted under-age girls, known as “tweens” – no longer children, not quite teens. Was it all just a misunderstanding? Did parental types over-react? What’s considered fair game when marketing products associated with sexual activity? Is lingerie really the problem, or is it something else?

The medium is the message

The ad campaign didn’t draw fire just because of the use of bright colors or skimpy patterns. Those can be seen by most anyone – modeled by girls looking no older than 12 or 13 — just about any week in Sunday-newspaper circulars from mainstream department stores like Target.

What seems to have drawn the ire of people signing a petition on Change.org were the messages – that’s correct, actual words – which Victoria’s Secret saw fit to emblazon on the garments, all part of its PINK line. Such as “Call Me” in shiny script lettering, on the front of a brightly colored, lacey thong. Other items of concern, the group says in its online complaint, include “lace back underwear with the word ‘Wild’ on the back to green-and-white polka-dot hipsters reading ‘Feeling Lucky?’”

The folks at Victoria’s promptly released a statement:

In response to questions we recently received, Victoria’s Secret PINK is a brand for college-aged women. Despite recent rumors, we have no plans to introduce a collection for younger women. “Bright Young Things” was a slogan used in conjunction with the college spring break tradition.

So then, how is it, exactly, that the protestors know the dainties were geared toward the delicate of age?

The Change petition continues: “Victoria’s Secret may claim that PINK is for college women but their Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer made it clear when asked about Victoria’s Secret’s PINK lingerie line that they are trying to reach a teen audience.”

When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at PINKStuart Burgdoerfer, Chief Financial Officer

D’oh!

The items were eventually pulled out of stores. But not before various members of the public made their voices heard. According to an article from Yahoo! Shine, a women’s lifestyle site, responses ranged from parental outrage to college-girl contempt to socially disconnected commentary:

  • “As a father, this makes me sick,” wrote a Texas clergyman in an open letter to Victoria’s. “I believe that this sends the wrong message to not only my daughter but to all young girls.”
  • “If you were letting your underage kids shop here before this campaign even started then YOU guys are the one who need to reconsider your parenting skills,” Shine quotes one female university student as writing on VS’s Facebook page.
  • “Younger girls want to feel sexy,” wrote one man, who later admitted that he didn’t have a daughter of his own. “That’s not VS’s fault, but they’d be stupid business people if they didn’t take the opportunity. Just be good role models and parents and do the best you can for your own girls. It’s really that simple.”

Damage control is easier when you don’t do damage

In hindsight, which never requires Lasik surgery, it appears that Victoria’s pushed the envelope a bit too far, stumbled over a corporate officer trying to yank his lower leg out of his mouth – and then responded the only way they knew how: Pulling the merchandise while claiming that the marketing move wasn’t meant to be harmful. But after more than 35 years in the business, the question has to be asked – what’s to stop Victoria’s Secret, or anyone else, from pulling a similar move again?

It’s probably of little consolation to anyone involved that, were a tweener actually to have succeeded in getting her guy friend to do some extra reading, her undergarments could have the days of the week printed on them and he wouldn’t stop and wonder whether the girl was on schedule. And if a written message stays hidden from view, what kind of meaning can it be said to have? Still, the idea of encouraging younger people to imitate older peers, which could lead to imitating riskier behavior, is concerning – especially if the perception is that advertisers are intentionally targeting groups regarded as vulnerable.

Cynics might say that Victoria’s will keep a quiet profile for a while, then go back to marketing to teens and tweens in some other way. Others will insist that, no matter how long the Change.org petition stays online, parents will eventually move on and pay even less attention to their kids – until the next marketing controversy.

What do you say? Who has the actual power here?

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