It was, in a word used Thursday by chief executive officer James P. Fogarty, a controversy over cleavage. And boy, did it get the company that owns Lane Bryant some buzz.
A commercial featuring a plus-size model in slinky lingerie aired during American Idol in late April and May, but only after a full-blown dustup over whether the ad, with skin shots galore, should be edited.
"It was a gorgeous ad, very exciting," Fogarty said in an interview after the company that owns Lane Bryant, Charming Shoppes Inc., of Bensalem, released its quarterly earnings Thursday. The ad was part of a $4 million campaign to woo customers to a brand that has struggled in recent years.
Fox initially refused to air the ad. So did ABC, for a spot on Dancing With The Stars.
So Lane Bryant, working with in-house and outside marketing experts, fired off an Internet salvo broadcasting the resistance, sparking a national debate: Are sexy skivvies OK on TV when the woman is a slender Size 2, but not so much on a bodaciously curvy Size 14?
"A plus woman, by definition, has more cleavage, and so they wanted to have us edit the ad substantially, basically really water it down," said Fogarty, who took over as chief executive last year. "We just thought it wasn't fair. Because if you've seen the Victoria's Secret 'Naked' ads, as they call them, they are fairly risque. Certainly, our ad wasn't more risque than any of that."
Lane Bryant's marketing team posted its blog note the week of April 14. Then the video spread virally across the Web, creating a publicity sensation one New York ad-watcher now calls a "manufactured controversy," but a master stroke of public relations.
"The upshot is that it was a fantastically orchestrated PR campaign for what really was a TV ad . . . put on the Web," said Michael Learmonth, an Advertising Age editor specializing in digital media.
In the 30-second spot, a buxom woman is seen in Cacique brand bra and panties as she gussies for a lunch date with a man. She puts on a coat and leaves the house as a voice says, "So not what mom would wear."
After the video and a letter of protest hit Lane Bryant's blog, the ad drew more than 2.3 million online views in the third week of April, earning it the top-ranked spot on Advertising Age's Viral Video Chart, Learmonth said. Jay Leno and Bill O'Reilly talked it up.
Fox, which had initially said "no" to the ad, later proposed that it be edited to run, said Michael Goldberg, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Zimmerman Advertising L.L.C., of Florida, which produced and negotiated the spots.
What would have to go?
"All of the breast shots," Goldberg said. "Anything in the upper torso that showed the bra product was asked to be edited out."
Eventually, Fox agreed to run the unedited ad during the final 15 minutes of American Idol's Wednesday night show, starting April 28 and ending May 19. That's TV's second-highest-rated time slot: The talent contest averages 23.4 million viewers.
Though most of the buzz has since faded, the topic was hot again in the company's earnings call Thursday, as stock analysts asked if the spot, and spat, boosted sales.
It's too soon to tell, Fogarty said, since many ads hit after the quarter ended.
For the three months ended May 1, Charming Shoppes logged a net profit of $3.9 million, or 3 cents a share. It had recorded a net loss of $6.6 million, or 6 cents a share, a year earlier.
Though profit was up, sales fell 6.2 percent to $504.8 million, from $538.1 million. The company closed 144 stores last fiscal year and will close up to 120 more this year. The results also include Fashion Bug and Catherines stores.
Fogarty told analysts the brouhaha gave the company an "opportunity" to "break through with our customer," and "that was something we certainly didn't count on."
Thomas A. Filandro, senior consumer analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group L.L.P., said he viewed the "highly controversial" ad as positive. "It created much more awareness than you would ever imagine for a television commercial," he said after the earnings call.
The mere mention again of the Lane Bryant frenzy raised the hackles of ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover, who like her counterparts at Fox were deluged when the blog campaign was at its peak.
"I remember every awful minute," Hoover said. "Men and breasts. That's what it was about. That is why the story got so much attention. I finally figured it out."
Hoover and the Fox network said they applied the same screening standards to the Cacique spot as they do to Victoria's Secret and other lingerie advertisers. Despite initially rejecting the ad, both offered to run it after 9 p.m., less of a family-viewing time.
Fox said Victoria's Secret ads only run after 9 p.m., too, and that the time slot given to Lane Bryant - the final segment of the show - is its top-rated.
To Fogarty, the Dancing With The Stars pushback was notable: 'There isn't much clothing on these dancers," he said, "and here they are giving us a hard time."