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Real women don’t sell

Image credit: Deborah Leigh

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Ultimo, the lingerie maker, has launched a new line of evening dresses. Interesting bit of diversification there – I suppose it makes sense for company that makes bras to also make outer garments. Hopefully the dresses will be designed with the logistics of bra-wearing in mind, because there’s nothing more annoying than finding a beautiful dress and then discovering that you can’t wear a bra with it and have to spend the evening wobbling to and fro with reckless abandon.

Anyway, this isn’t the main point. The point is the advertising campaign. Ultimo are shouting from the rooftops that they’re using REAL WOMEN. Apparently this is somebody’s idea of a fresh and innovative campaign, never mind that Dove has done that already, followed by Wonderbra.

The fact is that pouring some ordinary pretty women into some ball dresses doesn’t make me think “Hey, she looks like me. Ultimo are totally on my wavelength, and what’s more, they’re a fine, morally upright company that doesn’t peddle a soul-destroyingly perfect image of beauty”. I see “real woman” every day in the mirror, and frankly, she doesn’t get me excited. The problem with Real Woman is that she’s ordinary, and I want to imagine that I’ll look extraordinary in that dress. I’m buying into an idea.

Ultimo is not giving me a revelation by saying that real women don’t look like models. I know that already. I know they’re airbrushed. I find them no more eroding to my self-esteem than a Barbie doll. It’s gob-smackingly patronizing to suggest that by putting Christine the medical secretary from Croydon in a ball dress you’re relating to me as an ordinary woman, or that we all have terrible body image problems, or that if we do, using ordinary women as models will be the cure.

For an advertising campaign you need traffic-stopping images. And ordinary pretty women don’t make the kind of visually arresting image that you need to stand out in a world chock-full of advertising. The thing about supermodels is that they’re, quite honestly, really weird looking. If you saw one in the street you’d think the aliens had landed. But up on a billboard, they look amazing. That’s why they’re models. If real women had the same effect the world would stop functioning.

What people are really saying when they say “We must have Real Women! No more of these Slavic teenage Amazons with pipe-cleaner arms and legs! Bring me Jo the size 16 nurse from Bolton!” is that they wish models ate a bit more. If there were some kind of feeding programme to make models eat pork pies and Mars bars, there would be no need for this sanctimonious, cynical kind of campaign. Because that’s what this is, a worthy platitude dressed up as advertising. It’s as manipulative as airbrushed Glamazons – even more so in fact because it’s hiding what it is. Give me Naomi Campbell any day: at least she doesn’t pretend to be normal.

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What does all this have to do with B2B marketing? Well, arguably nothing, except that there are lessons to be learnt from this that are golden rules of B2B marketing:

Don’t assume you know your audience – they’re dying to prove you don’t, so don’t give them the opportunity.

Don’t try to be down-with-the-kids – it’s like your dad dancing. Please just try and sound normal.

Don’t innovate for the sake of it – sometimes diversifying is good, but innovating for the sake of it can dilute your message.

Don’t use clichés – unless you’re really good at parodying, if it’s been done to death then don’t resurrect it.

Don’t forget a good argument wins – manipulation is always a little sneaky part of marketing, but ultimately it doesn’t beat a copper-bottomed argument.

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