Ad Report Card: Victoria’s Explicit Campaign

This Thursday night, ABC will present the first network broadcast of the notorious annual fashion show put on by Victoria’s Secret, the maker of sexy underwear and assorted beauty products. The Disney-owned network will supplement this virtual infomercial with related quasi-advertising gambits such as a visit to the same lingerie show by characters on ABC’s Spin City and a couple of Victoria’s Secret models showing up on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

The broadcast is expected to do well among males ages 18 to 24, and one can assume that demographic also enjoyed one of the most striking ads on television in recent weeks: a spot for Victoria’s Secret itself. It’s possible that some advertisers worry about overdoing the “sex sells” thing, but that appears not to be the case at Victoria’s Secret—and perhaps if anyone can take that attitude, it’s a lingerie company. If you haven’t seen the ad, or if you’re the sort of person who wants to watch it over and over and over again, you can view it hereby way of Those of you who are determined to do more thorough research might also want to take the time to view a minutelong version of the spot: Go to Advertising Age’s site, where you’ll have to register (click “Join”), then click “Search the Hot Spot archive” and search for “secret.” It’s a hassle, but I’m sure some will find the effort worthwhile. (If you’re already registered at that site, thislink should work.) AdCritic uses the QuickTime plug-in; the AdReview site uses the RealPlayer.

The ads: There isn’t a lot to describe—or at least I’m not going to venture into thorough descriptions in a family publication like Slate. The ad consists of many, rapid-fire shots of extremely … healthy … women squirming and rolling and gyrating while wearing intimate apparel. This activity occurs in a variety of settings, such as candle-lit bedrooms, fully lit bedrooms, grand corridors, spacious bathrooms, and a couple of tables. Occasionally there’s a guy present, as a barely noticeable prop. The music is the driving “Inertia Creeps,” by Massive Attack, calling to mind a runway show—or perhaps a strip club.

And the secret is …? Not surprisingly, some viewers of this spot complain that it’s little more than soft porn, that it looks like an ad for an escort service, and so on. Certainly there isn’t a whole lot of “secret” involved in Victoria’s immodest sales pitch, and in fact this ad is part of what’s become probably the least subtle marketing strategy of all time.

Perhaps the ad, TV special, and assorted cross-promotions are overkill, or perhaps there’s no such thing as too many underwear models. (Just to be clear, this column is not opposed to racy lingerie.) Victoria’s Secret has been increasingly explicit in its courting of male consumers, and during a period when marketing wisdom has increasingly skewed toward the idea of pinpoint marketing, the chain has gone more and more mass in delivering its pitch. Victoria’s Secret’s marketers no doubt know that plenty of male gazers never actually buy anything. (Several years ago I knew a guy who was a very devoted fan of the catalogs but who also—go figure—was in the midst of an epic dating drought. Maybe he was buying lingerie anyway, but I’d rather not think about that.) Up to now I think the company has been more than happy to live with whatever collateral branding might occur among those who gawk but don’t shop.

But its latest marketing push arrives at a ticklish time for Victoria’s Secret. The chain, owned by Intimate Brands Inc., reported flat same-store sales in October and a decline in sales in the third quarter; its flashy and ubiquitous campaign arrives in a more subdued America than the one that existed prior to Sept. 11. Does someone need to tell the marketers at Victoria’s Secret that, sometimes, less is more?