Victoria’s Secret has made billions selling lingerie designed and marketed through the male gaze—a masculine lens that sexualizes and objectifies women. That “sex sells” marketing strategy may have worked in the past for millennials and Gen Xers, but if we know anything about Gen Z women, it’s that they loathe the male gaze.
As Gen Zers, most of whom are teenagers or in their early 20s, flock to brands that promote body positivity, inclusivity, and diversity—like Parade, Kim Kardashian’s Skims, and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty—Victoria’s Secret is racing to shift its image to something more feminist and empowering. But its strong brand recognition, plus a company history of misogyny and sexual abuse, is holding it back.
“It’s really hard to turn a ship that has been about exterior perfection and suddenly say, ‘Oh, exterior perfection doesn’t matter anymore,’” Mary Angela Bock, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies digital media through a feminist lens, told Fortune. “I appreciate what they’re trying to do. They are just in a jam.”
Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand
Just hearing the name “Victoria’s Secret” likely conjures images of tall and slim supermodels—Gisele Bundchen, Tyra Banks, and Karlie Kloss—walking the runway in nothing but a bejeweled push-up bra, underwear, high heels, and 60-pound angel wings. That’s the definition of “sexiness” that the company has mostly pushed since its founding in 1977. But Victoria’s Secret has long been criticized for objectifying and hypersexualizing women, rather than empowering them.
The firestorm came to a head in 2019 when the company sunsetted its Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show—the reason likely being a combination of declining television ratings and the vision of “sexiness” it promoted falling out of step with broader culture.
Comments from its then-chief marketing officer Ed Razek the year prior didn’t help either. Razek had told Vogue that he didn’t think transgender models had a place in the brand’s fashion shows and claimed there was no interest in plus-size runway shows. Then in 2022, an explosive Hulu documentary revealed that Victoria’s Secret’s founder had ties with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Now, instead of Barbie-like poster girls, Victoria’s Secret is showcasing a new, diverse group of women. They include Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, Brazilian transgender model Valentina Sampaio, and plus-size models Paloma Elsesser and Ali Tate-Cutler, to name a few.
“Sexiness can be inclusive,” Greg Unis, brand president of Victoria’s Secret and Pink, the company’s sub-brand targeting younger consumers, told investors on Oct. 12. “Sexiness can celebrate the diverse experiences of our customers and that’s what we’re focused on.”
A Victoria’s Secret spokesperson elaborated by telling Fortune: “Our focus on inclusion and expanding our definition of sexy are not tactics or a temporary position…We have full confidence that we are on the right course as we deliver on our promise to welcome, celebrate and champion women and their experiences.”
‘It was almost too sudden’
However, the campaign hasn’t been a financial boon for the company. Despite resilient consumers continuing to spend through a period of high interest rates and inflation, Victoria’s Secret reported $1.4 billion in net second-quarter sales, down 6% from $1.5 billion in the same period last year. And the company is projecting revenue of $6.2 billion this fiscal year, down 5% from the previous year and well below $7.5 billion from 2020, according to CNN.
Public response to the rebrand hasn’t been entirely favorable, either. After recruiting a new lineup of diverse women, Victoria’s Secret revived its fashion show with “The Tour ‘23,” which debuted at New York Fashion Week in September. But the event fell flat, according to some critics. The Cut said the event “could’ve been an email” given the lack of a catwalk and a show-stopping musical guest—which were core to the success of its previous fashion shows. Not to mention, advertising for The Tour strongly resembled advertising for Rihanna’s lingerie company Savage X Fenty, drawing more online criticism.
The swiftness of the campaign’s about-face may be to blame. Victoria’s Secret grew into a global retail giant by telling consumers that exterior beauty is what matters most. So an almost 180-degree shift in narrative has raised skepticism about the company’s genuine intention.
“It was almost too sudden,” Esther Pugh, a senior lecturer at the U.K.’s Leeds Beckett University who specializes in retail and consumer behavior, told Fortune. “Instead of staying true to some of the Victoria’s Secret values and changing more slowly, they quickly, completely changed their messaging.”
“Customers are quite savvy now, and I think they can see through that,” Pugh added. Since buyers can switch brands easily, especially given the rise of the internet, customer loyalty is something companies must work harder than ever to keep. Digital-native Gen Zers are leading this shift, she said.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is extremely important to Gen Z. They’re known to “vote with their wallets,” only supporting the brands that adhere to their social values, and vocally disapprove of the ones that don’t. This generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse of any in the U.S., so it makes sense that they want to see that reflected in their favorite brands—which, until recently, hasn’t been Victoria’s Secret.
But, of course, not all of Gen Z is walking the talk: “Even though they are aware of the sweatshops, the child labor and all of those ethical issues surrounding, they will still buy the fast fashion,” Pugh said.
Gen Z’s ‘unenviable position’
All in all, some Gen Zers feel the campaign is too performative and inauthentic.
“Brands—and this is true of so many brands—they can’t treat people of color and people of different sizes like a branding exercise and expect to be rewarded for it,” Maggie Zhou, 24-year-old co-host of the Gen Z podcast the Culture Club, told BBC about Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand. “There’s got to be so much more.”
But some women still miss the old Victoria’s Secret aesthetic. One user on TikTok said in a video that she would’ve loved the new Victoria’s Secret Tour show “if they would have just done exactly what they used to do” but “changed the models to be more inclusive.”
“They truly think that they had to get rid of angels because that’s what we wanted, when really we just wanted everybody to be an angel,” the user added.
In some ways, that solution makes sense; Victoria’s Secret angels represented an unattainable level of beauty to be aspired to. But returning to the old fashion show may only lead back to the original problem—women strutting down a stage in lingerie to please men.
“This is the debate that’s been going on for many decades about women being powerful means that they’re able to dress in the way that they want to,” Pugh said. “If they want to parade up and down a catwalk and not many clothes, then that’s their choice.”
Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand, and the larger cultural debate surrounding beauty and sexiness, is only exacerbated by digital media, according to University of Texas’ Bock. Gen Zers, especially, are constantly grappling with conflicting messages that tell them, “What really matters is how you feel, but you have to buy this outfit to feel good. What really matters is are you strong? Are you a nice person? Do you do these good things? Oh, but you actually need these boots and these external things to make you strong, sexy, powerful, happy, intellectually fulfilled,” Bock said.
She added: “Young people are in the unenviable position of caring and knowing how important diversity inclusion is and caring very deeply about other people. But then they’re also living online, and they’re affected by the way social media portrays people.”
It remains to be seen whether the Victoria’s Secret campaign will be successful, but despite criticisms, the rebrand is long overdue, Pugh said.
“Brands should never stand still. Everything has a lifecycle,” she said. “Maybe Victoria’s Secret is just coming to the end of its lifecycle.”
This story originally Appeared on Fortune