The iconic 1994 Wonderbra billboard poster, featuring Eva Herzigova photographed by Ellen von Unwerth

‘Hello Boys’: How Wonderbra Survived the Bra Wars

Initially developed in Canada in the 1930s, lingerie manufacturer Canadelle first registered its Wonderbra name as a Trademark in the United States in 1955. In 1963 the Wonderbra brand introduced Canada’s first push-up bra, the ‘Dream Lift’ style number 1300, which remained on sale relatively unchanged for many years. In 1968, Canadelle granted the UK licence for the Wonderbra to Courtaulds Textiles whose subsidiary, Gossard, manufactured and distributed the bra for over two decades.

Susanna Hailstone, writing for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in 1994, summarised Wonderbra’s status at the beginning of the 1980s, stating that Gossard was selling a steady but uninspiring 11 million Wonderbras per year in the UK. The main reasons for this were:

  • The fact that it was seen as a functional ‘niche’ product (a problem solving bra).
  • The bra itself, and the shape it created, had fallen out of fashion by the 1980s and was seen as out-of-date and unattractive by most women.
  • Advertising support for the Gossard Wonderbra had been negligible over that period.

However, despite its perceived unfashionability in the 1980s, it was the extremely low centre front and additional padding of this style which proved to be very popular with the changing fashions of the early 1990s. A classic case of something coming back into fashion if you wait long enough! A 1992 surge in sales – which resulted from an increased interest in displaying cleavage due to the plunging necklines of fashionable outerwear of the time, and was also fuelled by the ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend – led to renewed interest in the brand by the Sara Lee Corporation, who had acquired Canadelle and the rights to the Wonderbra name in 1991. They decided not to renew their agreement with Gossard when it expired in 1994 and instead kept the Wonderbra brand in house as part of their Playtex division.

Forced to let go of a well known and popular branded product, Gossard developed an extremely similar style, which it called the Ultrabra, and both manufacturers announced their publicity campaigns to the trade press at the start of the year. Thanks to its early 1990s success with the Wonderbra name, Gossard had become a high profile brand with a fashionable sexy image and, during the licence changeover period there was more interest from the media and the trade for the apparently new Gossard Ultrabra because the Playtex Wonderbra was viewed as an unchanged product.

It is worth pointing out here that advertising would have been seen as vital for both brands as, in the early 90s, the majority of British women purchased functional low-priced bras with little concern for brand names. The average price of a bra was £6.84 whereas the Wonderbra was retailing at £14.99. Around 40% of bras were purchased from Marks & Spencer at this time and, historically, lingerie brands had very little advertising support in the UK.

In the issue of trade publication Drapers Record dated 08 January 1994, journalist Lucy Ryder Richardson informed retailers that Gossard planned a six week television advertising campaign, beginning on 14 February, to be broadcast on ITV and Channel 4 with press advertising restricted to trade magazines. Playtex also had television campaigns planned, for brands like Superlook Secrets and Cross Your Heart, but were taking an alternative approach for their newest brand:

Wonderbra, meanwhile, will be backed with a print and 48-sheet poster campaign breaking in mid February. There will also be a Vogue advertorial in the February issue, shot by David Bailey and a lot of p-o-s [point-of-sale promotional material] to tie in with the campaign. Playtex is pushing window displays: its Wonderbra package, for instance, comprises five or six items. (Richardson, 1994: 23)

Closer to the Valentine’s Day launch date of these campaigns, Drapers Record reported in more detail that the relaunch of the Wonderbra in the UK would feature ‘a press and poster blitz using top fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth and rising star Eva Herzigova’. The following week, the trade journal announced that ‘the battle of the bras continues as Gossard strikes back at Playtex with a £2.5 million advertising campaign for its answer to the Wonderbra, the Ultrabra’, revealing that the commercial was to star Danish model Maya Ottensen and would be accompanied by a series of fashion shows across the UK to promote the brand, beginning in March with a show at a London department store featuring a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. However, the Ultrabra was competing against far more than an image of a buxom blonde.

The iconic 1994 Wonderbra billboard poster, featuring Eva Herzigova photographed by Ellen von Unwerth
The iconic 1994 Wonderbra billboard poster, featuring Eva Herzigova photographed by Ellen von Unwerth

The now-iconic billboard and double page magazine advert for Wonderbra consists of a monochrome photograph of model Eva Herzigova wearing black lingerie alongside the Wonderbra logo and the text “Hello Boys”. She looks down and appears delighted by the sight of her own cleavage but, when viewed as a billboard poster, this could also be viewed as her delight at the gaze of the passers by. The text “hello boys” could be read as referring to Herzigova addressing her breasts or the male viewers, and its ambiguous nature combines well with the striking image.

The only other text on the advert states that Wonderbra is “the original push-up plunge bra” and states the sizes it is available in. The manufacturer’s name does not feature – perhaps because the brand Wonderbra was always associated with Gossard and Playtex wanted to avoid confusing consumers, or maybe because the Playtex name was not seen as fashionable. Either way, with waif-like Kate Moss claiming that even she gets cleavage when wearing one, by this time Wonderbra was a product that stood on its own merits. In the year 2000, author and broadcaster Stephen Bayley wrote of the campaign:

Perhaps only in Britain with its specially complex attitude to the bosom could the recent Wonderbra poster campaign have become a national phenomenon. […] It was in Britain that an extremely pretty, but in fact rather skinny, Czech model was translated through an adman’s fetish into a symbolic figure as resonant of the bosom as Diana of Ephesus. […] But it wasn’t simply the picture of the delightful model. It was the copyline too. The ‘Hello Boys’ was very revealing in the use of the masculine diminutive. This was an imprecation both enticingly erotic and, of course, utterly maternal. (Bayley, 2000: 16)

The bold approach of the “Hello Boys” billboard campaign had been tested by the advertising agency who showed nearly 4,000 female lingerie sales assistants across the UK a preview in advance of its launch. The self-assured confidence of the model and the fact that no men were shown helped to give the advert’s humour a strong appeal amongst women as well as men. Susanna Hailstone commented that:

The key to the past and future success of the Wonderbra lay in sex and sexuality, and women clearly found this attractive, as long as it was not offensive or demeaning. Humour was used as a way of reducing this risk. Extensive research showed that the ‘One and Only’ Wonderbra advertising campaign was seen as clever, enjoyable, appealing, motivating and relevant. And as well as appealing to women, no-one could disagree with the fact that ‘sex sells newspapers’, and that journalists would respond very positively to a bold, raunchy advertising campaign for the Wonderbra. However, where the advertisements were finally placed would ensure their impact and the generation of publicity. (Hailstone, 1994)

Looking for maximum exposure on a limited budget, the agency (TBWA) chose to speak directly to customers, via ads in women’s magazines, and also to address the press via the impact of billboard advertising. This impact was heightened due to the fact that outdoor sites were an extremely unusual medium for lingerie advertising at the time. This two-week poster campaign, costing £130,000 generated 386 features and a total of three hours of airtime, which was estimated to have been worth a massive 13,664% more than the posters alone had cost. Even when you factor in the cost of the magazine adverts, it would seem that Wonderbra got over 5,000% more coverage than they paid for, due to clever targeting.

The month after the launch of the Wonderbra and Ultrabra campaigns, Draper’s Record reported that Gossard planned to re-run their Ultrabra television campaign in October before the launch of an embroidered ‘designer’ version of their bra in time for Christmas. According to Tim Green, writing for the 2 April 1994 issue of Drapers Record, both companies had spent £2.5 million on their initial advertising campaigns – Playtex had 1,000 billboard sites and double page adverts in women’s magazines for an initial two week period, while Gossard had a pan-European television commercial running for six weeks – and the UK media were eager to cover the story in whatever way they could.

Alongside the bold and perhaps risqué advertising campaign, the Vogue advertorial for Wonderbra – mentioned by Richardson in her Draper’s Record article – sought to appeal to a more stylish fashion conscious consumer. “The Look for 1994”, a British Vogue promotion for “The One And Only Wonderbra”, ran in the February 1994 issue and featured full-page photographs of four Wonderbra styles: a front-fastening Wonderbra; the original Wonderbra; the ‘Wonderbody’; and a balconette bra, with matching stretch lace briefs.

All the photography was by David Bailey, and the shoot was styled by Nikki Brewster with minimal make up and slicked back hair, plus a luxurious cashmere shawl and cashmere cardigan. All shots of the uncredited model show her, unlike Eva Herzigova in the billboard adverts, making eye contact with the viewer and only showing the faintest hint of a smile. The minimal styling, background and text mean that these images stand out when the reader is quickly flicking through the magazine’s pages, however, this is not an entirely unusual format for the time. By making the name of iconic fashion and celebrity photographer David Bailey a large part of the promotion, Wonderbra manages to convey a high fashion or high art cool that the images on their own do not possess. The only other lingerie advert in the February 1994 issue of British Vogue is a single page for Hanro, a brand stocked at high-end department stores such Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Fenwick and Selfridges.

A close look at a 1996 black lace Gossard Ultrabra Perfection held in the V&A’s Clothworker’s Centre shows how similar to the classic Wonderbra style this supposedly new competitor was. This push-up plunge underwired style has the same construction, with the main noticeable difference from the 1991 Gossard-made Wonderbra being that the wings are part lace, part powermesh. The packaging, however, informs the consumer of additional benefits to the ‘new’ Ultrabra. Text on the back of the box highlights three important features: ‘soft cushioning on the straps and centre of the bra provide all day comfort’; ‘specially designed close-fitting pockets hold pads firmly in place’; and ‘a multi-filament fabric for ultimate softness, protects sensitive areas of the bust and provides all day comfort.’ There is also a diagram showing the number of elements that go into the making of the Ultrabra Perfection Miracle System – I counted 41 – and another showing the two configurations of the adjustable straps.

Although a Google image search for the word Wonderbra still returns the ‘Hello Boys’ poster in its top results, in contrast, the only 1994 UK television commercial for Gossard’s Ultrabra that is currently available on YouTube is the ten second version rather than the full advert. On the heritage page of the Gossard website, it is briefly mentioned that the commercial was considered ‘too racy for British television’, so perhaps this is why. The lingering appeal of the “Hello Boys” poster suggests that the Playtex Wonderbra adverts were more successful in capturing the nation’s attention and so it would appear that, on this evidence, Gossard didn’t do enough to win the battle against what has now become one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the late twentieth century. However, the success or failure of both campaigns in sales terms is not quite so easy to determine.

Two months after the launch, Drapers Record reported: ‘it seems that the advertising has done a brilliant job of making the push-up hot again, but failed to establish brand loyalty’ as many women did not know which manufacturer owned which brand and they often had no preference as to which push-up bra they purchased. It appeared that the advertising campaigns, rather than creating a winner of either Playtex or Gossard, had a generic effect on overall lingerie sales with February 1994 showing an increase of 370 per cent over the previous month.

The similarities between the surviving bras in UK archives supports this theory that the major advertising campaigns of 1994 did little to promote brand loyalty at the time as, other than the name, there would appear to be hardly anything to differentiate the two bras. However, the strong and ongoing brand recognition that Wonderbra has enjoyed since 1994 has ensured its survival and highlights the extraordinary power of a carefully planned and well executed advertising campaign.

References
Beckwith, A. (2012) Channel 4 Adverts 1994 (16), 21 May. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne8rCABYe2w
Drapers Record (1994a) ‘News’, 29 January: 5
Drapers Record (1994b) ‘Gossard starts push to win battle of the bras’, 5 February: 5
Drapers Record (1994c) ‘Vital Statistics: Sales Support’, 26 March: 13
Farrell-Beck, J. and Gau, C (2002) Uplift: The Bra in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Green, T. (1994) ‘Glandular Fever’, Drapers Record, 02 April: 20-21
Hailstone, S (1994) ‘The Wonderbra – How thinking big ensured the survival of the fittest’, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. Available at: http://www.warc.com/fulltext/ipacases/4537.htm
Moberg, M., Siskin, J., Stern, B. and Wu, R. (1999) Sara Lee: Wonderbra. Available at: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~afuah/cases/case15.html
Richardson, L.R. (1994) ‘On the Campaign Trail’, Drapers Record, 08 January: 20-23
Sutherland, J. (1994) ‘Fit and Flair’, Drapers Record, 19 March: 27
United States Patent and Trademark Office (2006) Wonderbra, US Registration Number 612231. Available at: http://tsdr.uspto.gov/
Voyce, M. (1994) ‘Sara Lee plunges into US bra wars’, Drapers Record, 28 May: 9
Wonderbra (2013) Our Story – Wonderbra Canada. Available at: https://www.wonderbra.ca/shop/en/wonderbraca/our-story
‘Wonderbra’ (2014) Wikipedia. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonderbra