Mention bra advertising and most people will conjure up the image of Eva Herzigova and the traffic-stopping "Hello Boys!" billboard campaign. They are unlikely to think of Leslie Ash, the former star of the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, whose personal life has been raked over by the tabloids in recent months. Yet at 44, and recovering from a traumatic illness, Ash has been selected as the new face of bra-maker Playtex.
Is this merely a publicity stunt? Or is it a more positive sign that a leading brand is willing to place its future in the hands, or in this case the cleavage, of a woman in her forties, who has experienced life's ups and downs? In which case Playtex has come a long way since Lancôme dropped Isabella Rossellini on the stroke of 40 for being too old, although Lancôme denied it.
Ash is not just any 44-year-old. She is a celebrity whose private life has been endlessly discussed in the popular press since she was admitted to hospital this year with a collapsed lung and a broken rib, which she says resulted from a bout of "energetic sex" with her husband, the ex-footballer and club owner Lee Chapman. To make matters worse, she then contracted the hospital bug MSSA.
But the rumour mill refused to accept Ash's own account of her injuries. Last month, the actress appeared in a joint interview with Chapman on ITV's Tonight With Trevor McDonald to deny once and for all widely reported speculation that her injuries were in fact the result of domestic violence.
"Playtex believes that Leslie Ash is perfect for the 'Just My Style' campaign because she is a real woman," says Therese Gilligan, marketing manager for the brand. "On the one hand, she is an aspirational, beautiful and confident celebrity, with a hugely successful acting career. On the other hand, as a mum who has been through difficult times, she is very accessible and easy for women across the UK to identify with."
Ash herself is upbeat. "I chose this range because it is so right for a woman like me who wants to look good and feel really feminine. I love the way I look in these pictures - sexy and confident."
Jasmine Montgomery, the strategic director of branding agency FutureBrand and an expert on marketing to women, believes that the choice of Ash as a role model is a welcome step in the right direction. "Any time a fashion brand, in particular a lingerie brand, decides to use someone in their forties, that's a positive move because it goes against the grain of so many brands that have invested in youth," she said.
She compares the Playtex campaign with the recent adverts for Body Shop and Dove bath products, featuring real women of all shapes and sizes. "There's a massive opportunity out there for brands to promote women's self-esteem. Most brands actually damage women's self-esteem because they understand that's a way to drive purchasing behaviour."
Montgomery warns, however, that using Ash could backfire if women's perceptions of her as a role model are coloured by what they have read in the press. "The positive aspect could be mitigated by some of the circumstances surrounding Leslie Ash, if she is seen as someone who is low in self-esteem. If she's in a place in her life where she's picking herself up, that bodes well - to have someone who is admittedly flawed, who has been very public about their troubles, is a good thing. But it depends on Leslie's next year and whether their brand is about empowerment and self-esteem or whether it's just a gimmick."
Society, as much as advertisers and their clients, is to blame for the industry's preference for nubile female models in their teens and twenties, says Montgomery. "The public seem to be clamouring for more real women, and yet when forward-thinking clients present them with real women, they are turned off. We have been thoroughly brainwashed."
Whether or not Ash succeeds in boosting Playtex's profile, the campaign could provide a valuable lesson for the advertising industry.
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