The advertisements above are launched today by Berlei. Like recent Wonderbra and Gossard ads, they use jokes. What they don't do is show the product. Belinda Morris traces the changing shape of bra advertising
Next week will see the first of lingerie company Berlei's new bra ads - a three-part campaign notable for a number of reasons, but most markedly for the fact that no bras are being shown. Not one.

An unusual step you might think, especially considering the cool $1m shelled out on this, Berlei's biggest offensive yet, and one aimed at relaunching the brand to a new and younger customer. But in fact, it is just another twist in the extraordinary tale of latter-day underwear advertising, that has turned former unmentionables into serious subjects for polite (and not so polite) dinner table discussion. Bras have come out, both literally and figuratively.

Arguably, the change came about three years ago. Even competitors cannot dispute that Wonderbra's traffic-stopping "Hello Boys" poster broke new ground, and most would concede that it started a trend in clever slogan campaigns as well as giving a much needed uplift to the quietly sagging UK lingerie industry which has led to the likes of Gossard's rather naughty advertisements for Glossies (one resulted in 350 complaints, while sales rocketed) and Triumph's assertively suggestive "If I want a man to see my bra I'll take him home".

However, Berlei's ads are different, because, as their marketing director Laura Cannon is at pains to point out, they are targeted solely at women. The pictures - shot in New York by top photographer Robert Erdmann- of confident, laughing models, holding up to their breasts trowels, saucepans and a magic wand, together with their accompanying messages, are a joke that women will understand (although you may have to read the small print before you really "get" it) and empathise with.

The philosophy behind the images, which will run in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and She as well as Sunday supplements, is that only women know the agony that is scratchy lace next to a delicate bosom; underwires digging into the skin (I still have scars) and the endless worry of badly behaved bra straps under skimpy shift dresses.

Heaving cleavages and pretty colours are all very well, say the women of Berlei's extensive market research, but what about comfort? What about the practicalities? "OK," said the marketing team. "We'll show you that Berlei is a modern brand that understands what women want from their lingerie, and we'll also prove that we have a sense of humour."

"Humour gets the audience's attention," explains Cannon. "It gets them to feel good about the ad, whatever the product. The person in the crowd who has all the good one-liners is always popular. This campaign reflects women of today who like to have a good laugh - it lights up their busy lives and we want them to feel brilliant about themselves."

Unlike some of their precedents, these pictures are not for men. They will be unlikely to titillate and the models have been chosen for their "character" and girl-next-doorness, rather than their pneumatic curves and come-hither pouts. Innuendo has been replaced by an all-girls-together knowingness that excludes men without turning the tables exactly. As Cannon explains, "modern women like men in their lives and we don't want to be seen as putting men down."

In the scheme of things; in the light of the history of women's underwear promotion, a few pointed remarks and the odd amused dig might seem a small price to pay. Ever since corsets, and then bras, were invented, women have been sold to in a manner that was either misleading, patronising or derogatory and in some cases all three.

In the 1880s Harness claimed that their Electric Corset was "the very thing for ladies" as "the chest is aided in its healthy development ... cures weak backs ... the internal organs are speedily strengthened." In the face of Victorian prudery, health was promoted in a big way and advertisements were always tasteful line drawings that would not offend the most delicate sensibilities.

By the 1930s, covering the breast for modesty's sake had been replaced by a combination, for health and the notion of bosom enhancement. A forerunner of today's no-show T-shirt bra was the Kestos Brassiere - "unnoticeably, but not unnoticed ... a cunning wisp of loveliness that subtly enhances feminine curves." The selling and buying of lingerie had become inextricably linked with pleasing men and this was particularly obvious during the war years when letting your figure go, said Berlei in one memorable ad, was tantamount to desertion of duty - "It's bad for morale and bad for efficiency too," it scolded.

By the Fifties and the easing-up of post-war censorship, the public had become used to seeing women in various stages of deshabille and advertising became more risque. Sweater girls proudly displaying painfully cinched- in waists, emphasising gravity-defying pointy bosoms, advertised the "forward" look and women were encouraged to look like Mansfield, Monroe and Bardot.

Nor was there much let up during the Sixties, despite bra-burning feminists eager to eliminate the "yoke of oppressive femininity". It was in fact a mixed-up period, with sexual revolutionaries on one hand and Stepford- wife, woman-as-plaything images on the other. Malcolm Vagg, marketing director of Triumph is amazed at the advertising the company got away with at the time. "The slogan `undies to be caught in' and `undies to be examined in' showing a girl with a fireman and a doctor are just so sexist," he admits, "but were seen as revolutionary then." It was also an era for the surreal, such as Berlei's curious image of a bra- and girdle- clad, veiled woman inexplicably wading through a lily pond, and the decade when the Wonderbra was launched - most women leapt at the chance of a bunny-girl cleavage.

In 1962 the Advertising Standards Authority was born. Representing the advertising industry, the job of the ASA was to draw up a code of practice for itself. Acting as an arbiter of taste and decency on behalf of an outraged public, the ASA, which celebrated its 35th birthday last week, has certainly had its work cut out in recent years, not least with regard to bra posters.

But in spite of hundreds of column inches on the rights and wrongs of women getting back at men and whether or not Eva Herzigova embodies female empowerment or Sophie Anderton's glimpsed nipple embarrasses mothers with small children, the ASA firmly refuses to take the role of moral arbiter. If an ad doesn't cause "serious or widespread offence" then it stays. In the context of selling underwear, it wisely reasons, a little bare flesh is excusable, even essential.

On this score the new Berlei campaign has nothing to worry about. Not that Laura Cannon is worried. Her hope is simply that the advertisements will be seen by press, loyal customers and potential customers, as "speaking to women - who have come so far as to make their own destiny - in a responsible way"n