Bright Young Things, a Victoria’s Secret campaign focused on Spring Break attire and featuring thongs that say provocative phrases like "call me," is getting lots of attention this week: not for the fashionable nature of the line, but for its sexualization of young girls. A variety of petitions, Facebook groups, and conservative columnists sprang to arms, determined to shut this new line of Victoria’s Secret down. Buzzfeed collected the most outraged comments from the Victoria’s Secret Facebook page: and most focused on the horror of having scantily clad models selling clothes to preteen girls, sexualizing them at such a young and vulnerable age.
Since all of the models featured in ads are well over the age of 18 (the youngest is 22) and the demographics of the "Bright Young Things" brand are from 15-22, one wonders: what makes this campaign different? What about the Bright Young Things advertisements in particular are infuriating and scandalizing parents? It seems that the answer has little to do with the content of the ads and far more to do with the mobilization of conservative parents. At the end of the day, the targeting of Victoria’s Secret does little to address the pervasion of marketing into the lives of everyone, regardless of age.
Jezebel traces the beginning of this tween underwear crisis back to an article written by "arch-conservative" Amy Gerwing. Her anger at this brand, which she somewhat tenuously connected to teen pregnancy and eating disorders, caught the attention mainstream media and the conservative blogosphere. One angry father wrote to Victoria’s Secret:
"I want my daughter (and every girl) to be faced with tough decisions in her formative years of adolescence. Decisions like should I be a doctor or a lawyer? Should I take calculus as a junior or a senior? Do I want to go to Texas A&M or University of Texas or some Ivy League School? Should I raise awareness for slave trafficking or lack of water in developing nations? There are many, many more questions that all young women should be asking themselves … not will a boy (or girl) like me if I wear a 'call me' thong?"
I am not the first to point out that, of course, the option of choosing between being a doctor and a lawyer while wearing a "call me thong" does not compute.
This rage at Victoria’s Secret seems more paternal and controlling in nature than a simple desire to see media sexualize young people less. As Sean McElwee surmises at Moderate Voice, "Sexuality is not something that should be controlled by parents, nor should fathers be overly concerned with the undergarments his daughter wears."
What is perhaps more concerning than the supposed preteen sexualization that inspired conservative ire is the greater culture of advertising inundation that exposes children to these ads. Perhaps parental fear that children were being targeted by Victoria’s Secret reveals just how much advertising their child is exposed to on a daily basis?
Children spend 900 hours in the classroom and over 1,600 hours watching TV, and will see over 1,000,000 commercials by the time they turn 18. With the advent of social media and "ad games" that hype products to consumers online, the exposure of teens and children to excess advertising is not going anywhere soon. Of course, singling out Victoria’s Secrets "Pink" line as a particularly egregious example of hypersexualized advertising is random at best. The conservative rage at this brand of clothing implies that once they succeed at eliminating the Bright Young Things brand, there will be little to no sexualization of young people or nefarious advertising practices left, when, in reality, the Bright Young Things campaign is a relatively innocuous example of the pervasive and subtle role that marketing plays in everyone’s lives, young or old, in order to shape their buying practices.
Victoria’s Secret is certainly not an innocent: perhaps more worthy of condemnation is the brand’s use of prison labor to manufacture its lingerie for every age. Yet, of all the human rights-violating corporate practices and products playing into hypersexualized culture and the dehumanization of women, "Bright Young Things" is the only one facing scrutiny. Perhaps a better campaign could be launched to challenge the unconscious role that advertising plays in all of our lives, or the sexualization of teens that occurs on a regular basis in advertising. Until a more comprehensive plan comes to fruition, the targeting of Victoria’s Secret is simply misguided.