Long before Viagra, there was Victoria's Secret.
In little more than 15 years, the now famous women's clothing merchandiser has grown from an obscure little company known for naughty nighties and corsets to a lingerie marketing juggernaut. And its chief marketing device the mail-order catalog once discreetly tucked out of sight in most homes, now resides comfortably on coffee tables across the globe.
While it is rumored that women occasionally look at these catalogs, it is men around the world who send up silent thanks for every one of the million copies delivered every year.
Much of their thanks is owed to a few hundred men and women at the World Color printing plant in Evans, where more than half of all Victoria's Secret catalogs are produced.
"It¹s about 60 percent of what we do," said Mike Cliatt, a pressroom supervisor at World Color, where new catalogs are almost constantly rolling off one of the many production lines.
The catalogs have created the image that resonates behind the company name.
The name "Victoria's Secret" not only summons up visions of beautiful women, clothed in in diaphanous garments that leave little to imagine. For many it's synonymous with romance itself a code word for sexual extravagance.
And the title "Victoria's Secret model" has become a term of recognition and respect, ranking somewhere between "Hooters Girl" and "U.S. Ambassador to China."
There is even a television sitcom,
Veronica's Closet, that makes little effort to disguise the source of its inspiration.
"I don't think there are many people that don't know who we are, or what we sell or don't own a pair of our panties," said Janine Darling, Victoria's Secret catalog production director.
According to Ms. Darling, the catalog is the key to the company's success.
"That's our store," she said, holding up one of the freshly printed publications with a languorous, heavy-lidded model draped across the cover. "You want to make sure that it is as perfect as possible."
A new catalog is mailed out almost every week of the year.
Regular catalog buyers can expect a constant barrage of catalogs hawking everything from special accessories to big seasonal sales, Ms. Darling said.
Some catalogs promote the company's "country collection," a sexy casual clothing line that has branched off from the core product.
Still others offer special holiday lingerie from the obvious Valentine's Day frilly heart fest to skimpy little "Santa suits" that give new meaning to the phrase "good will toward men."
For Victoria's Secret, image means money, and every step of the way color is key to producing that image.
"Victoria's Secret's business is extremely important to us," said plant manager Larry Phillips. "We have to constantly monitor the color process."
Mr. Phillips' response is typical of those who see the millions of images of partially clothed women every day. They all seem to have developed a professional distance from their work -- as if they were doctors.
"I don't even see them anymore," claimed a man working in the bindery, too ashamed to give his name.
And while there is some evidence that Victoria's Secret models may have some effect on plant morale -- a few pin-ups of Miracle-bra beauties enhance a few office walls no one seems willing to acknowledge the less-than-subtle subject matter.
"We pretty much just pay attention to color," said Heath Taylor, a cylinder technician. It's Mr. Heath's job to tediously correct color of individual images by hand by adding and removing micro-layers of copper to make subtle changes in color density and tone.
World Color receives the catalogs first as digital information, transmitted through telephone lines. From there it is transcribed by computers, with each image engraved on the 12,000-pound copper cylinders used to print the pages.
Still, Mr. Heath seemed more honest than most. "We still look at the pictures sometimes," he added somewhat sheepishly.
Fortunately for Victoria's Secret, the general public has not developed an immunity to the powers of model Tyra Banks and company.
And while Victoria¹s Secret officials claim to market directly to women, the catalog's appeal to men has made it more popular than many magazines.
"It borders on the edge of being a catalog and a competitor to Playboy," said Robert Reeves, professor of psychology at Augusta State University.
Dr. Reeves, who specializes in studies of consumer behavior, said the company owes its success to more than the obvious titillation factor. "There is sort of an air of exclusivity to these products," he said.
The company has been so successful in developing its name brand recognition that it has insinuated itself into the consumer psyche, he said.
"It promotes youth and vitality," Dr. Reeves said, "although if you look closely, some of the models are getting on up there."
Speaking in purely academic, intellectual terms, of course.
World Color's role in this cultural phenomenon is not lost on the people who print them each week.
"Everybody's got their eyes on Victoria's Secret, and that means they've got their eyes on us," said Mr. Cliatt, inspecting a finished product, just off the press. "But it never grows old," he adds with sly grin.
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