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We'll Buy Nearly Anything From a Woman in a Red Dress

The story of advertising's most sensuous icon

Marketers like to talk about stuff that’s “disruptive.” And when it comes to advertising—actually, when it comes to pop culture in general—few things are quite as disruptive as a woman in a red dress. 

A popular cosmetics brand in the postwar years, DuBarry
skillfully correlated its red lipstick shade with a red dress,
which in this 1962 ad captures all the excitement of a night
out. “She’s looking fashionable and sophisticated, and
pleasing her husband, which was culturally appropriate to
the time,” Darroch said. Already a sexually charged garment,
the red dress here gets an extra boost from that feather boa.

Care for some proof?

When celebrity photographer Milton Greene shot Marilyn Monroe in 1957, he made sure she wore a red dress. Chris de Burgh was a little-known singer until 1986, when he crooned about his Lady in Red. In 1999’s The Matrix, young Neo nearly took a bullet in the head—and why? Because he was distracted by a woman in a red dress. And while few remember much about Queen Elizabeth’s 2012 jubilee, who can forget Kate Middleton showing up in that red Alexander McQueen dress?

So potent and enduring is the “Red Dress Effect” that behavioral psychologists have studied it—and demonstrated that women who don red are not only regarded by men as more physically and sexually attractive, but also tend to have more money spent on them. In fact, the dating site OKCupid discovered that women wearing red in their profile photos have a greater statistical chance of being asked out.

What’s going on here? Two things, actually. First, red is a color with a long history. “It has always signified power, wealth and passion,” said brand consultant Liz Dennery Sanders. Second, according to professor Jenny Darroch of Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management, the true alchemy takes place when red bedrapes a tall, beautiful woman. “Through time,” Darroch said, “there’s been a common meaning for the red dress: It’s love, lust and sex.”

Marketers are no strangers to this mystique, of course. Through the decades, women in red dresses have popped up in ads from Barbasol to Buick. But as the two ads here show, the power of the symbol isn’t always easy to manage. As Darroch put it: “The meaning of the red dress has remained constant—so the question comes down to how it’s executed.”

Both the 1962 DuBarry and 2014 Loews ads shown here execute it equally well, according to Dennery Sanders. “In the older ad, wearing red means snaring your suitor, so it’s about a woman’s power over her man,” she said. “The Loews ad is about power, too. There’s no man in the ad, so it’s about a woman’s own power for herself.”

Darroch, however, isn’t so sure. The red dress’ obvious sensuality feels “culturally appropriate” in 1962, she said, mainly because it’s playfully directed at the well-dressed gentleman. But in the Loews ad, the absence of a man (or a mate of any sort, really) allows the red dress to slink into dangerous territory. “I see an elegant, sophisticated woman—without a partner, in a hotel, about to hop a red eye and wearing a red dress,” Darroch said, asking a question that’s bound to occur: “Is she a career woman or a high-end escort?”

Maybe she’s both, maybe neither—and maybe that’s the point. We know that the Red Dress Effect works; we’ll just never know why. 

‘Through time, there’s been a common meaning for the red dress: It’s love, lust and sex.’ | Jenny Darroch, professor of marketing at the Drucker School of Management, author of Why Marketing to Women Doesn’t Work

 The color red has its share of cultural baggage (think: The Scarlet Letter), but since red also represents wealth and power, Loews has apparently doubled down by throwing in some red curtains, too.

 Catching the red eye is presumably meant to suggest that this woman is a high-powered executive, but Darroch believes the connotation is confusing. “If she’s getting a nighttime flight, I don’t know why she needs a hotel room,” she said.

 Dennery Sanders observes that the length of this red dress keeps the imagery from sinking into red-light territory. “If they’d put her in a tight dress showing more skin,” she said, “it would be a different ad.”

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