SRU researchers analyze corporate social responsibility campaigns


Women smiling

Body positivity is a movement that retail companies have adopted to challenge stereotypical standards of beauty by depicting images of real women, instead of airbrushed photos of models. Students at Slippery Rock University have studied body positivity campaigns from companies like Aerie as case studies in a public relations and integrated communications class.

June 3, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The stakes have never been higher for retail companies to take a moral stance on issues related to public health and social justice. Customers have come to expect a certain level of corporate social responsibility, which is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable.

An example of this is a popular case study that's continually analyzed by Slippery Rock University students in a 300-level class called Case Studies in Public Relations and Integrated Communications. For a research paper and presentation, students in the class choose a real-life public relations campaign to analyze from the perspective of ethics and overall effectiveness.

One of the most popular case studies is from Aerie, a brand of intimate apparel and swimwear owned by American Eagle. Aerie's ongoing #AerieREAL campaign, which was launched in 2014, emphasizes body positivity, inclusivity and the empowerment of women. Aerie was one of the first brands to stop manipulating images of its models, as the company challenged the stereotypical standards of beauty by showing real women in its advertisements.

"This is one of the most popular case studies in my class," said Allison Peiritsch, assistant professor of communication, who taught two sections of the class last fall, and a group from each section chose the #AerieREAL campaign. "It makes a whole lot of sense because I would say 99% of the women in the class fall right within Aerie's target audience of women between the ages of 15-25. The company promotes realistic standards for its customers, and by embracing imperfections, starting with preteens and teenagers, they are helping women embrace their own beauty."

Peiritsch worked for 12 years as a senior vice president, media strategist for Ketchum, helping the PR agency's variety of clients develop brand messaging. She said that campaigns like #AerieREAL particularly resonate with consumers during the current pandemic when buyers are shopping online almost exclusively.

"If you've got a brand that's using models who look like the actual people who are buying the clothes, the shopper is able to say, 'This woman has a similar body type as mine. I like the way that the clothes look on her, so they'll probably look good on me,'" Peiritsch said. "Then you've got a shopper who's able to make more informed purchasing decisions. The brand seems more realistic and attainable because on the flip side you've got Victoria's Secret, which is known to use models who all have the same body, are likely airbrushed, and are very aspirational and unattainable."

In the first fiscal year after launching the #AerieREAL campaign, Aerie sales increased by 20%. Although the brand has an 8% market share of U.S. women's underwear sales, Aerie's success continues to affect Victoria's Secret, which saw its market share decrease from 31% to 24% from 2013-18.

"The campaign really changed the course of advertising for women," said Alexis Miller, a senior communication major from Butler, who co-authored a research paper for the class. "A lot of companies followed their lead. That was really why we chose the campaign for our research. We also shop there and we were comfortable with the brand. It continues to be relevant today even though the campaign started in 2014."

Miller, who aspires to work in advertising as an art director, said she and the other students who selected #AerieREAL benefitted from researching the campaign to better understand effective corporate social responsibility campaigns as well as consumer behavior.

"Nowadays, people are getting a lot of information from a company and they want to buy from a company that puts values first," Miller said. "I would rather purchase from a company that aligns with my values and I know where the products are coming from, whether they are using sustainable practices or how they are supporting the community."

Peiritsch, who has researched and published articles about companies like Starbucks and Gillette for their crisis response and ethics, agrees that corporate social responsibility is important.

"I believe that organizations can be catalysts for positive change through their public relations and advertising activities and that type of advertising isn't going away," Peiritsch said. "What we have seen over the last five to seven years is many more brands who are engaging in what we would call 'brand activism.' It used to be that brands would stay away from polarizing and contentious topics for fear of alienating part of their consumer base, but now what we're seeing are brands that are actually embracing political and social stances and they're bringing it front and center into their messaging."

Still, Peiritsch said consumers should also keep companies' motives in mind.

"We always need to remember that when you have companies that seem like they're doing good things, there is always an underlying profit motive," Peiritsch said. "We can't forget that."

For more information about communication majors at SRU, visit the Communication Department webpage.

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