The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show Is a Marketing Juggernaut With Waning Relevance

Does the show have a place in 2018?

Kendall Jenner at the 2018 Victoria's Secret fashion show. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

On Sunday night, CBS will air Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show. The event, which was taped in November in New York, is the lingerie brand’s yearly pinnacle. Since its first iteration in 1995, then a relatively small untelevised affair at the Plaza Hotel, the show has grown astronomically.

With bedazzled bras, massive angel wings and nary a pocket of cellulite in sight, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is the definition of over-the-top sex appeal in its most traditional form. But as competitors like ThirdLove, Aerie, Lively and more embrace other approaches to sell bras, Victoria’s Secret’s sex-first, slim-only marketing—seen most prominently during the fashion show—has started to feel, in the era of #MeToo, a bit outdated.

Comments made by Ed Razek, the brand’s longtime CMO, who acts as the company’s public face for the show (besides, of course, the models themselves), have brought that feeling to the forefront. In a recent interview with Vogue, he said that he didn’t think they should have transgender models “because the show is a fantasy.” He also said that though, in 2000, the brand attempted to do a plus-size version of the show, “no one had any interest in it, still don’t.”

Ed Razek speaks to models backstage at the 2018 show.

The outcry was immediate: Razek’s comments implied that transgender and plus-size models were not a “fantasy.” The next day, he issued an apology, saying that they would “absolutely” cast a transgender model. But the fact remains that Victoria’s Secret—who declined to speak to Adweek for this story—has never cast a transgender model, or a plus-size one, in its main event, despite each demographic containing increasingly well-known models. That exclusion is reflected in the brand’s in-store offerings, too: Their bras only go up to size DDD.

This hasn’t helped the brand win over more customers. “Even if people don’t believe Victoria’s Secret is bad, they don’t necessarily see it standing for anything good,” John Dick, CEO of CivicScience, a consumer intelligence research platform, said. 

Heidi Klum on the runway in 2001, the year of the first televised broadcast.

Beyond Razek’s comments, the place of a spectacle like the Victoria’s Secret show in 2018, in the midst of the #MeToo movement that has brought women’s voices to the forefront perhaps more than ever before, feels dissonant. These changes in culture have led to a brand that seems to highlight only one type of woman as “sexy,” as well as marketing something so essential to a woman’s everyday life as an instrument of sex appeal, which has made the brand an outlier in the category.

“Even the advertising for the brand in general, not just the show, has started to look a little old and out of it,” said fashion writer Christina Binkley. “In a way that it didn’t even 24 months ago.”

Despite the brand’s still-massive market share—around a third—and it’s remaining status as the number one lingerie brand in the country, Victoria’s Secret’s recent struggles are undeniable. According to Forbes, 2018’s third quarter saw its comparable sales and operating income decline. In August, it announced plans to close 20 stores. Following Razek’s comments, Jan Singer, the brand’s CEO parted ways with the company after a little more than two years in the role.

The fashion show hasn’t been exempt from this waning interest: The 2017 broadcast had record low viewership with just under 5 million viewers in the U.S., according to The Hollywood Reporter. Five million is still a sizable audience, and that number doesn’t take into account online buzz, which the show is clearly still generating.

Models take a final bow at the 2017 show in Shanghai.
Getty Images

“It’s still an effective tool in that it generates publicity and it gets attention,” said Neil Saunders, retail analyst and managing director of GlobalData Retail. “But the actual nature of the show itself hasn’t really evolved. The idea of a show is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. The way Victoria’s Secret executes the show, however, is out-of-step with what a lot of consumers really want, and what the rest of the market is doing.”

Society has changed quite a bit since the show debuted in 1995—Victoria’s Secret hasn’t changed with it.

Beverly Peele walks the runway at the first-ever show.
Getty Images

Current concerns aside, there’s no denying the monumental impact the show has: In 2016, the Paris-set show reportedly gained 150 billion media impressions worldwide. And from the first show, back in 1995, it seemed destined to be big.

The genesis of the “Angels”

Leslie “Les” Wexner, CEO of L Brands, originally proposed the idea, according to Razek, who told Elle in 2016 that Wexner had called him and said “we’re a fashion company; we should have a fashion show.” It was Razek who identified Victoria’s Secret as a top candidate from L Brands’s portfolio, which, at the time, included retailers like Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, and The Limited.

The appeal seems obvious. “It was lingerie, it attracted eyeballs and it had some sizzle,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, adding that it set Victoria’s Secret apart in their often-functional competitors. “They created an event to separate their brand from the category.”

And best of all, for the brand: They were able to control it. “It’s the ideal situation,” he said. “If you have an owned property, it’s far more powerful than advertising on someone else’s property.”

The first show, held at the Plaza Hotel, had just two cameras. Razek said the company wasn’t entirely pleased with how it went, but “we woke up the next morning and it was worldwide news,” he told Elle. “A major network had called it the lingerie event of the century. When we saw that, it was like, there might be something here. Let’s try another one!”

That they did. And from the early days, Victoria’s Secret—which was then, and is still, best-known as a mall brand—booked some of the biggest models in the world for the gig. In 1996, the concept of the bejeweled, ultra-expensive Fantasy Bra was introduced; it was worn by supermodel Claudia Schiffer. The next year, models like Rebecca Romijn, Naomi Campbell and Helena Christensen walked in the show.

Tyra Banks wearing one of the first sets of Angel wings in 1998.

For the show’s seventh iteration, Victoria’s Secret decided to televise the show—the show did air online beginning in 1999—and Razek said that the first network they met with, ABC, snapped up the rights within minutes. (The show was broadcast on CBS the following year and for the years following; this year, it returns to ABC.) It’s been televised every year since, with the exception of 2004, with executives cautious about anything related to scantily-clad women in the wake of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

Over its 23-year existence, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show has developed from a catwalk in a hotel ballroom to an event that’s allowed a mall store to host one of the world’s most talked-about fashion events. And it made the brand’s Angels, a special group of models who hold year-long Victoria’s Secret contracts—who have included Alessandra Ambrosio, Heidi Klum and Miranda Kerr, among several others—into bonafide celebrities. (In 2007, they landed a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)

Models take the catwalk in 2011.

“The models that walked in that show, it was a statement,” said Binkley. “They had made it in the mainstream of modeling.”

Building hype

Perhaps most impressive about the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is how the brand manages to make the buzz around the less-than-hour-long event last for weeks, both preceding the show’s taping and after its television airing, according to Binkley. “A lot of fashion shows will garner attention the day they happen, but Victoria’s Secret started building steam in advance of it,” she said. “It carried on for 24, 48 hours after, which is massive impact for a fashion show.”

A billboard shows Claudia Schiffer in the first Fantasy Bra.

Often, it’s even longer than that. In the weeks leading up to the show, models—especially the “Angels”—do plenty of interviews, chatting about their pre-show diets and beauty routines. (Longtime Angel Adriana Lima told The Telegraph in 2011 that she only consumes liquids for the nine days ahead of the show.) The annual Fantasy Bra debut is always made into an event, with the debut of the bra taking place a few days before the show tapes. The announcement of the model who gets to wear it is a coronation of sorts—and the chance to do so is regularly referred to as an “honor.”

Victoria’s Secret does its best to increase the show’s lifespan. For one, the show also always airs a few weeks after it’s taped, even as photos are released. During that in-between, buzz continues to build. Other methods have been employed over the years, too: In 2009, they launched a web show called the Victoria’s Secret Model Search, an amateur modeling competition that saw one girl, Kylie Bisutti, cast in the show.

The reason to keep it going was simple: “It allowed Victoria’s Secret to promote its products, but also get its brand name out there and show that it was in the forefront of the market,” said Saunders.

Bumps along the way

However, as the event has grown, so have the controversies. In 2012, Karlie Kloss walked the runway in a Native American-inspired headdress. The public outcry was so intense that Kloss offered an apology and the outfit was not shown in the final broadcast. In 2002, PETA protesters took the stage as Gisele Bundchen stepped out on the runway holding signs that read “Gisele: Fur Scum.” The show has routinely been the subject of ire from groups like the Parents Television Council. Diversity concerns have been voiced in the past, though last year, half of the models walking in the show were women of color.

But the most persistent of these criticisms has been the fact that although ethnic diversity has grown, body diversity has not. “It demonstrates that the culture of the company is completely at odds with what’s going on in the outside world,” said Saunders.

Karlie Kloss's outfit that never made it to air.

At its core, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is a massive marketing tool. No fashion brand, let alone one that’s most commonly associated with suburban shopping malls, has anything like it. What the show has done, and continues to do was cement Victoria’s Secret’s brand positioning and image in the eyes of consumers.

“It was a showcase for everything that was Victoria’s Secret,” Saunders said of the show’s heyday. “The elaborate nature of the show, the idea of parading models up and down the catwalk in skimpy lingerie, they were really very much part of the Victoria’s Secret brand.”

As Razek himself admitted, plus-size women have not been a part of that brand in the past. Reports from Time echo that, with one former employee explaining that the company’s top brass has “never felt a large body is sexy.”

In a country where 67 percent of women wear size 14 and up, it’s tough to believe that an overwhelming majority of American women (even if a woman isn’t a part of the aforementioned two-thirds number, she still likely wears a larger size than a Victoria’s Secret model) don’t want to see themselves represented in marketing. It’s a problem bigger than just Victoria’s Secret: According to a study of over 15,000 people from The Female Quotient and Ipsos, 72 percent feel “most advertising does not reflect the world around me.”

Jasmine Tookes wears the Fantasy Bra in 2016.

“It feels a little bit like those car models, the beautiful women pointing at the new Oldsmobile,” said Binkley. “Suddenly now, it seems a little dated, to be honoring a young model for wearing a million-dollar, diamond-studded bra.”

Not without a fight

Victoria’s Secret’s place in not only in business but in the lives of the women who they hope to court and keep as customers may face criticism in today’s climate but the brand is a behemoth that will be hard to topple.

It still has certain numbers in its favor: According to a survey of 3,000 Americans from CivicScience, the brand’s favorability is higher than it was three years ago. And the fashion show still serves as a something of a boon for the brand: The favorability sees an uptick every year, right around the time of the show. It’s those statistics, Dick said, that give the brand a reason to remain hopeful for its future—though he admits “they’d be better off keeping their mouth shut” in the wake of Razek’s comments.

Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner are among the current roster of models.

“We seem to have seen a leveling off,” he said. “They could build on that or they could continue to slide if they keep misstepping, but it sounds to me like it seems like consumer confidence or consumer sentiment towards the brand has settled in and even improved a little bit from where it was two years ago.”

But if they do continue to slide, from a purely financial perspective: Will it make sense for a declining retailer to put on an event that can cost more than $20 million (the number Razek touted to the New York Times in 2016)?

“It’s diminishing returns,” said Adamson. “As culture changes, as tastes change, as attitudes towards women change, and women’s attitudes towards how they want to be depicted change, it’s becoming less and less effective every year.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.