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Remember when these 1990s Wonderbra ads shocked the world?

By Leah Dolan, CNN

(CNN) — Controversial advertising campaigns are almost a rite of passage for brands and companies looking to grab headlines. The outrage is rarely fatal, and the innovation behind eyebrow-raising commercials often outshines the indignation generated.

The infamous 1994 Wonderbra ads, which turn 30 this year, are a case in point. The poster campaign was intended to promote the trademarked plunge push-up bra — a lingerie piece first popularized in the 1960s — to a new generation of consumers. Shot by fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth, the ads featured renowned runway model Eva Herzigová in nothing more than a pair of black lacy briefs and a matching brassiere.

The accompanying slogans used in the UK market were as subtle as a slow-motion wink. “Mind if I bring a couple of friends?” read one ad, as Herzigová leans forward to demonstrate the bustier’s gravity-defying technology. “Or are you just pleased to see me?” was another.

But the best-known iteration of the campaign was much simpler: “Hello Boys,” it read.

Push-up bras weren’t new, of course — one of the earliest padded bras dates back to 1948. The Wonderbra brand, which dates back to the late 1930s as an offering from the Canadian Lady Corset Company (later known as Canadelle), introduced its first push-up model in 1963.

Canadelle first trademarked the Wonderbra name in the US in the 1950s, and later gave British hosiery brand Gossard a license to sell the bras in the UK. But in the early 1990s, Sara Lee Corporation (which by then had acquired Canadelle and wanted to expand its presence in the intimate apparel market), reclaimed the license and relaunched the Wonderbra in the US and UK markets via its own lingerie brand, Playtex.

The 1994 campaign joined a salvo of ads that the British trade press dubbed a “battle of the bras” between Playtex and Gossard, which was then offering a similar “Ultrabra” product. (Versions of the push-up bra were also being sold by Victoria’s Secret, Maidenform and Vanity Fair Lingerie, among others.)

The buxom, busty look is often seen as a direct response to the waifish body ideal pioneered by ‘90s supermodels like Kate Moss, Jodie Kidd and Jamie King. “The modern bosom is no longer an accident of nature but a fashion option,” wrote journalist Roxanne Roberts, a style writer at the Washington Post, in 1994.

At the time, Roberts reported that the Washington, D.C. department store Hecht’s had received 1,200 phone calls inquiring about the Wonderbra after displaying ads ahead of the relaunch. While the stateside campaign was less suggestive than its British counterpart (the “Hello Boys” slogan was ditched in favor of vague quips such as “Who cares if it’s a bad hair day”) the commercial still had an impact.

“We got $50 million worth of free publicity for a $25 million line,” said John Bryan, the late chairman of Sara Lee at a press conference in 1996. “On one day, the Wonderbra got more space in the New York Times than the Federal Reserve.”

Part of the ads’ overwhelming success was down to their bold placement. Herzigová was plastered on stories-tall billboards across the UK and US, towering over cities like a hyper-sexualized Godzilla. And whether thanks to its scale or its, well, sauce, the campaign was a shocking departure from other lingerie brands, which at the time were typically much discreeter — Victoria’s Secret, for example, exclusively operated via mail-order catalog (by 1997, it was distributing 450 million catalogs per year, according to the now-defunct Racked).

“The poster campaign… was unusual in that underwear publicity had previously been largely confined to women’s magazines,” summarizes London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which has one of the printed posters available to view in its library collection.

In the UK, it was rumored that the roadside ads erected as part of the campaign had proved so provocative that male motorists crashed at the sight of Herzigová’s chest. But while is no evidence that the push-up directly caused any accidents, British road safety experts did label the billboards — and similar ads that followed, like UK underwear brand Sloggi’s depiction of thong-wearing women riding bicycles — as dangerous and distracting. The campaign was too much for some British sensibilities, and was banned from being displayed in Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, by local officials.

Other observers, meanwhile, took issue with Wonderbra’s messaging. It became the go-to example of reductive, sexist marketing in academic essays and journalistic think pieces, and was slammed as sexist by consumer focus groups. Eventually, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority responded to the onslaught of complaints it had received, though it ultimately dismissed them in favor of the ads’ humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone.

Since then, the image of Herzigová has gone on to be considered one of the most memorable advertisements in British history. The campaign has even been relaunched twice: Once in 2011, by breast cancer charity Coppafeel, and again in 2019 — when the famous “Hello Boys” slogan was revised to “Hello Girls” in an attempt to modernize it, though the campaign caused somewhat less of a stir.

“Hello Boys was very provocative,” Herzigová told British magazine Tatler in 2019. “It was also a very powerful statement and one I always defended against feminist accusations because I think it had a very empowering, liberating effect on women.”

“What women are saying now is, ‘I am who I am. Take it or leave it’.”

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