It’s no secret that the advertising industry relies heavily on physical appearance to sell products, especially for clothing, accessories, and even cheeseburgers. About a year ago, Brent (Lorentz, of the fellow Duets Blogger fame) discussed the prevalence of unrealistic expectations of beauty in advertising. As Brent mentioned, while ethical standards are applied to all sorts of industries, there seems to be little discussion of any ethics in advertising. Sure, some academics, activists and other groups might complain now and then, but the complaints don’t seem to result in any meaningful action or change.

As an anecdotal example, when Hardees / Carl’s Jr. came out with its first “pretty ladies in very little clothing cheeseburger ad,” the Parents Television Council objected. They released a public statement chiding the restaurant chain stating “The Paris Hilton/Carl’s Jr. commercial is nothing but a sleazy attempt on Carl’s Jr. part to make money selling burgers with pornography.” The response from Andy Pudzer, CEO of the chain? “Get a life.”

Against this backdrop, American Eagle took a risk with it’s “Aerie” chain of lingerie stores, choosing to not photoshop the models in its advertisements. The brand’s decision is particularly noteworthy due to the chain’s target market: 15-21 year old females. Here is one of their summer ads:

The fact that one brand has made this commitment isn’t big news. After all, companies have an occasional bout of conscientiousness quite frequently. I haven’t heard any announcement from any other brand. No, the real news is that the ad campaign is not just a “feel good” moment, but is actually making American Eagle more money. Sales of the Aerie brand shot up 9% over the last quarter. Sure, it could be coincidence or it could be that people simply hadn’t heard of the Aerie brand until these ad campaigns. Regardless of the “why,” there is at least anecdotal evidence that consumers will positively respond (with their wallets) to more ethical, realistic beauty standards for women.

To be sure, professional models don’t provide a truly realistic expectation of beauty either. But it is a step in the right direction. I doubt that the entire industry will follow suit and, honestly, I’m not sure that it would be necessary. The primary problem, for me, is that realistic body images were never portrayed in advertisements. The idea, I suppose, is that companies think that consumers see the advertisement and on some subconscious level think that they’ll be just as beautiful if they buy that swimsuit/wear that perfume/ eat that jalapeno chili cheeseburger. By extension, choosing to not make the women in the advertisements as beautiful as possible would presumably have less of an effect on the viewer because they don’t want to be average, they want to be beautiful. Even if companies didn’t believe it, it likely wasn’t worth the risk. But Aerie’s ads question these assumptions. Here’s to hoping at least some companies follow suit.