Ten years ago, Dove became the first modern-day beauty company to feature regular women with everyday bodies as spokespeople - some with curvy hips, some not so much - and the campaign continues today. Since then, though, few other companies that have tried the same tactic have gained traction - it seems real hasn't been able to successfully sell beauty products, and too-fat or too-thin bodies often get ridiculed in the media (think post-pregnant Jessica Simpson or Biggest Loser winner Rachel Frederickson).
That, however, is starting to change. Image-manipulation is in the hot seat as bloggers, feminists, and celebrities criticize the outcome as unattainable and unnatural. Some folks even protested how the February issue of Vogue had Photoshopped comedian Lena Dunham's images. (Excuse me, but if I were on the cover of Vogue, I would want the bags under my eyes to be Photoshopped.)
This backlash, paired with our penchant for posting selfies, and all the imperfections they contain, is forcing companies to consider that real women might actually belong at the center of beauty culture.
"We are shifting to embracing imperfection, because that's considered more authentic," said Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT, a New York marketing and communication agency.
The designer-dress website Rent the Runway features an "Our Runway" page, where renters of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities post snapshots of themselves in high-end, special-occasion dresses. Potential shoppers can click below the photographs to rent the gowns.
During its winter 2012 promotion, Lanvin used 11 nonmodels in its glossy ads, including an 80-year-old woman. And in January, Aerie, a subsidiary of American Eagle in Pittsburgh, launched a billboard blitz featuring unPhotoshopped models in dainty intimates.
"It's a brilliant strategy for companies," said Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor at Temple University's School of Media and Communication. "Even if I have no impulse to go to the Free People site, if my friends upload their latest pictures from it, I'll look. . . . Look at the potential sales."
Real-people campaigns are growing beyond fashion and beauty, too. Stihl, a Virginia-based power-tool company, started this month using male and female professional construction workers and firefighters to sell the heavy-duty tools.
And East Falls' East River Bank is planning to feature its customers on billboards by early summer. No stock photos for them.
"It breaks down barriers and makes us more attractive and comforting to do business with," said Christopher McGill, president and chief executive officer of the bank.
While it's admirable that fashion brands like Free People and Aerie are employing more-inclusive advertising and marketing strategies, the majority of real women, most of whom are larger than size 14, are still feeling left out.
The Aerie models are wearing tiny bras and underpants. And the shoppers featured on the Free People site have a very curated, Mary Kate-and-Ashley-Olsen aesthetic. And although Free People screens the submissions only for appropriateness, everyone looks downtown-hip.
"What constitutes real?" asked Temple University's Duffy. "They may be two inches shorter than a model, but they are all gorgeous, and they look like models."
It shouldn't be overlooked that in the case of Free People, the company and the young women, many of whom are self-described fashion insiders and bloggers, benefit, Duffy added. "They are hoping to get discovered, and in return, the companies are getting free labor."
The FP Me Takeover that ended two weeks ago grew organically from Free People's online fashion community called FP Me, said Jed Paulson, the company's director of e-commerce and marketing.
FP Me ( www.freepeople.com/fpme/) is a Pinterestlike page where shoppers upload street-style pics of themselves wearing Free People outfits, "heart" (or love) their peers' looks, and comment on mix-and-match options.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of FP Me, Free People invited its most prolific posters to a photo shoot at its Navy Yard headquarters to style themselves in pieces from Free People's early spring line and be featured in the Takeover campaign.
"I got a really great response to my pictures," said Kiki Nguyen, 28, an avid FP Me poster, who lives in downtown Los Angeles and has a hippie style - she likes exaggerated bell-bottoms and fedoras. "I've met a lot of awesome people. My regular friends ask me why I dress like that. ... But these people really get it."
During the campaign, there was a spike in Free People's e-commerce traffic, Paulson said. And while he wouldn't comment on sales, he made it very clear that Free People was planning another Takeover ... soon.