Women don't have to be a size 6 or smaller for rich, powerful, handsome single men to find them desirable.
That is the relieving message that Lane Bryant, the specialty retailer for plus-size women, hopes to convey as it introduces a campaign using Mr. Big, a character in the hit HBO series "Sex and the City." In the ads, the debonair Mr. Big, portrayed by the actor Chris Noth, is shown nuzzling with and thoroughly enjoying the company of several beautiful plus-size models.
It is not unusual for fashion advertising to use sex appeal to sell women's clothing. But what is not as common is that marketers are now using sex in ads that focus on heavyset women. In the past, fashion advertising for plus sizes usually just showed models posing alone in attractive outfits.
Taking the bold step of showing men interested in women who are not the typical waif fashion models is part of Lane Bryant's strategy to position itself as a fashion leader in plus sizes and reinforce positive images about the type of woman who buys the retailer's products.
"She is powerful and smart and stylish and sexy," said Chris Hansen, executive vice president for marketing and creative at Lane Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, a unit of Limited.
After two and a half years of featuring plus-size celebrities like Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy, Anna Nicole Smith and Queen Latifah in its ads, Lane Bryant decided to take a different tack and feature its first male celebrity.
The company projects a distinct attitude in its marketing, Ms. Hansen said. One way to show that was using female celebrities, she added, while another, "we thought, was to have a man acknowledging who these women are outright."
"And," she added, "have him be somebody who, quite frankly, is on the sexiest show on television with a number of regular size women and watch him move to a plus-size arena and be as flirtatious."
Lane Bryant approached Mr. Noth with the idea of starring in the ads. It was important to him, Ms. Hansen said, that he display the qualities of Mr. Big, whom Mr. Noth sees as debonair, a man about town, a savvy New Yorker who loves women and is a gentleman.
"It was kind of one of those things where you're sitting around brainstorming and you go, `Who would be really right for this?' " Ms. Hansen said. "And not only was his personality perfect, but the fact that his character is named Mr. Big was more perfect for a plus-size company that does sell to bigger women."
The Mr. Big campaign was created by an in-house team. Though billings were not disclosed, Lane Bryant spends about $2.5 million on advertising and public relations each year.
The first portion of the campaign, which is timed to coincide with Valentine's Day, features the retailer's intimate apparel line. In the print ad, Mr. Big is dressed in a tuxedo, with a couple of beautiful, curvy size-14, or larger, women dressed in red and black satin lingerie, fawning over him. With his thumb in mouth, the smirking, mischievous expression on his face says it all. The headline reads, "The big idea. Seriously sexy intimates."
Those ads began running in the January and February issues of fashion and style magazines like Mode, People and Talk.
The second ad featuring Mr. Big introduces the retailer's spring selling season. A blond model clad in a jeweled pair of blue jeans leans on Mr. Big, who is dressed all in black. The model looks as if she is about to pull Mr. Big in for a kiss. Mr. Big looks once again like the cat that swallowed the canary. The headline reads, "Win big. Not your ordinary jeans." That ad begins in March magazines.
To support the print effort, Lane Bryant's estimated 700 storefront windows across America are set up to display the same ads on 12-foot banners. In addition, a direct marketing effort featuring Mr. Big was sent to about a million customers.
"The purpose of advertising has been to bring in a younger target and to communicate that we are the fashion leader, that there have been fashion changes going on and that we're interested in this younger, more fashion-conscious customer," Ms. Hansen said.
Lane Bryant, one of the oldest and most recognizable names in plus-size clothing, has sales of nearly $1 billion a year. Yet the marketplace is constantly changing, with many designers interested in joining. Growth in retail sales is basically flat, Ms. Hansen said, but growth in the plus-size segment is at 10 percent a year and has been increasing consistently.
"It's a market that has been, for the large part, ignored from a fashion point of view," she said. "So there's even more pent-up sales. I think we all feel if the customer were offered true wardrobing choices, there would be even a higher amount of expenditures."
Ms. Hansen said the company did not know whether Mr. Noth would star in future ads. But if he is anything like his commitment-phobic character, don't hold your breath.
Courtney Kane, The New York Times. February 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.