It’s <i> Clothes </i> That Make the Ad : Marketing: Ad agencies hire experts to make sure clothing worn by the actors gets across the right message and doesn’t clash with the product.


When E&J; Gallo decided to update its image, the winemaker didn’t just change ad agencies. It changed clothes.

Out went those corny commercials where the duds worn by the singing actors had about as much pizazz as “Lawrence Welk” reruns. In their place came a crop of ads with young couples decked in snazzy outfits. This time, the fashions were so carefully selected that stylists even made certain the clothing didn’t clash with the color of the wine.

“Imagine, grown people sitting around for hours discussing whether the host of the party should wear a suit or a sport coat,” said Clifford Einstein, president of the Los Angeles agency Dailey & Associates, which creates those Gallo TV spots featuring affluent young couples casually entertaining friends.

With $125 billion spent annually on advertising, most marketers will jump through hoops to dress actors in clothing that catches consumers’ eyes. These days, with so many ads competing for attention, advertisers are keenly aware that clothing can play a crucial role in getting people to look at ads--and purchase products. Some ad executives even argue that the caliber of clothing worn by models is more critical than their physical features, their make-up and, in some cases, even their sex.


“Clothing is a brand statement about a person,” said Carol Moog, a clinical psychologist and advertising consultant based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. “An advertiser can cue an immediate response from the consumer by the clothing it places on an actor.”

Clothing is the advertiser’s best psychological tool to grab attention. For sure, upbeat music and jazzy settings are important in TV spots. But the fastest way for consumers to tell if advertisers are chasing after them is to see if the actors in the ads dress as they do--or as they want to dress. Clothing is the great communicator of social class. The way a model dresses subtly suggests the person’s education, occupation and income.

Why do so many car ads show men in flannel shirts? Psychologists say flannel shirts represent “comfortable masculinity"--something to which many men aspire. No surprise, then, that in an ad for Stetson cologne, the guy driving the Jeep is decked in flannel. “That makes him an everyman,” said Susan Small-Weil, executive vice president at the New York agency Warwick Baker & Fiore.

What about some of those ads for diamonds with men and women in blue jeans? The diamond producer and marketer De Beers has a broad public to which it must appeal. “This is an attempt to show casual, unpretentious people who buy casual, unpretentious diamonds,” Moog said.


Ads for household products aimed at mothers will rarely show a mother wearing red because the color red often has too many sexual connotations. And never look for anyone dressed in red in an ad for feminine hygiene products. Psychologists say it would communicate the wrong message. Instead, most of the women are dressed in white. “That’s a signal that says, ‘This is a product you can trust,’ ” said Allison Cohen, senior vice president at the New York agency Ally & Gargano.

Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find an ad for a bank that doesn’t show bankers dressed in pin stripes. “Pin stripes have become the cultural jargon for banking,” said Moog. Banks all want to show stability these days, and that is just the message pin stripes communicate.

Ad executives constantly must remind themselves that few consumers dress as the upscale people working at their big agencies in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles do. “You have to keep taking the pulse of the rest of the country,” said Nancy Vaughn, group creative director at Ally & Gargano. To do that, agencies constantly interview consumers in shopping malls, at beaches and in rooms with one-way mirrors.

Interviews with consumers recently coaxed McDonald’s to loosen up the dress codes in some of its ads. Consumer interviews lead one liquor company to kill a campaign because consumers felt that the attire on the models was too downscale. And consumer attitudes are at least partly responsible for the near-neon clothing colors that often appear in Newport cigarette ads.


Critics suggest that spending so much time and money on clothing is ludicrous. Not only does it add to the cost of the commercials--and possibly to the products themselves--but it also can set unrealistic fashion aspirations, especially for teen-agers. Besides that, some critics contend, using clothing as a crutch can make for pretty weak commercials.

“The story should always be told through the character, not through his clothing,” said Joe Sedelmaier, a Chicago director whose offbeat Alaska Airlines spots feature regular folks--not professional actors--usually wearing their own clothes. “All of this concern for clothing in advertising is nothing but egos at work.”

But others argue that advertisers who pay little heed to the clothing they use in their ads are doing themselves--and their viewers--a disservice. “Clothing,” said Einstein of Dailey & Associates, “has the same effect in a commercial that adjectives have in novels.”

Indeed, these are confusing times for anyone charged with selecting the clothing worn in advertisements. That’s because two concurrent but seemingly contradictory trends are emerging. On one hand, the clothing worn in many commercials appears finally to be reflective of today’s dress--with some male models even wearing earrings.


But at the same time, a number of advertisers are becoming even more conservative in how they dress their models. A bad economy along with a conservative political environment has left many advertisers fearful that apparel with any sort of ‘90s fashion flair will frighten away potential customers who can’t envision themselves in that style of dress.

“Everyone who has hired me in the last three years has told me that they want the models to look ‘accessible,’ ” said Iris Lewis, a Los Angeles-based stylist, who has selected clothing worn by models in numerous ads, including some AT&T; spots. “They want everyone to dress user-friendly.”

Clothing is more important than the casting, said Vaughn of Ally & Gargano. “The way a person dresses can tell you if the product being advertised is for all people, for people who think they are hip, or if it’s exclusively a luxury item,” she said.

But “place the wrong piece of clothing in your ad,” warned Ally & Gargano’s Cohen, “and it can dilute your message.” In a 30-second spot, you have few clues to what a person is all about, said Small-Weil of Warwick Baker & Fiore. “You don’t know where they live or what kind of car they drive. In 30 seconds, about the only information you can get is how they look.”


Lots of people have a hand in picking out clothing for commercials. Directors, clients and actors all have a big say. But with so much at stake, the commercial clothing boom has helped to create a relatively new breed of professional: commercial wardrobe stylists.

The stylists are professional clothing hawks who select attire for ads with one eye on the actor, one eye on the director and a fashion eye on what will line the clothing racks of the near future.

“Clothing is belabored to the point of ridiculousness,” said Judith Dan, a Los Angeles stylist who has selected clothes for numerous commercials. “It’s gone over and over and over.”

There is an informal array of taboos and other common practices in the dressing of commercial models that is becoming the industry norm. Among them: Rarely should the clothing on models outshine the product being advertised. When the clothing rates first billing, it is almost always an intentional move by an advertising director who finds the product itself to be wholly uninteresting.


Sometimes the rules of the clothing game seem blatantly sexist--if not racist. Ads for tobacco products and alcoholic beverages that target blacks frequently feature women in sexier dresses than similar ads aimed at general consumers.

One New York stylist said she refused to compromise when a large liquor advertiser asked her to create a billboard ad campaign targeted toward blacks, with a black woman wearing a very low-cut dress. The ethnic campaign was scheduled to run heavily in New York’s Harlem.

“The black ad was supposed to look much more naughty than the white ad,” said Irene Albright, who styles and rents clothes from her Manhattan firm, Imelda’s Closet. When Albright balked at her assignment, the ad agency agreed to let her select a different dress. In the liquor company’s general billboard campaign, no low-cut dress was worn by the model.

Before selecting clothing to appear in one major cigarette print ad campaign, Albright received a 25-page research paper from the company describing the brand’s target consumer. The report listed everything from where the person attended school to the type of clothing this customer might wear. She ignored the report.


Tobacco companies are far and away the biggest spenders on clothing for ads, Albright said. Clothing budgets of $20,000 for cigarette ads are not at all unusual.

But liquor and tobacco companies are hardly alone in their fastidiousness with fashion. In print ads for makeup products, the clothing worn by the models is frequently dyed to match the make-up.

In fact, fashion is such an emotional issue that arguments over it have delayed--and even killed--commercial shoots.

A client happened to be on the set of a commercial being shot by the Los Angeles agency Kresser/Craig. In the TV spot, the principal actress was wearing a pink sweater. “The client thought the pink sweater didn’t show up enough,” said Jean Craig, president of the agency. “So we had to shut down the set for three hours while we ran out to buy a red sweater.”


These days, clothing in ads is increasingly used to improve the product’s image. McDonald’s surprised its Los Angeles agency when it updated the look of a recent ad by asking the firm to replace a middle-aged guy wearing a conservative sport coat with a teen-ager decked in a wild purple and orange outfit.

Clearly, McDonald’s realizes that teen-agers buy a lot of fast food. And the way to attract teen-agers is to show them people who dress as they do. “McDonald’s no longer wants all the people in its ads to look like McDonald’s own crew people,” said Brad Ball, president of Davis, Ball & Colombatto.