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persuasion

Ballet is back in marketing, but this time the focus is on strength and discipline, as in this Lexus ad.

There is not a tutu in sight.

In recent ads for Lexus and Under Armour Inc., the frills and performance of ballet take a back seat. Dancers are shown in motion, sometimes in leaping flight. Control, movement, and musculature are at the forefront.

These are just two examples of the new face of dance in advertising. Marketers have always loved ballet dancers, with brands such as Movado, Birks and Rolex using them to communicate style, beauty and grace. More recently, they are taking a starring role in an increasing number of commercials.

The Lexus ad from last year shows a dancer's athletic, precise moves as an analogy for the strength and control of automotive engineering.

American Ballet Theatre dancer Misty Copeland is now one of the faces of Under Armour. The commercial that launched in July highlights her strength. Clad in the fitness wear, she ascends en pointe as though drawn by a kind of reverse gravity. Her muscles, in close-up, look etched. Over these images, a young girl reads a letter of rejection from a ballet academy, told (as Ms. Copeland was) that she has the wrong body for ballet. After a shot of Ms. Copeland's calm and determined face, comes the slogan, "I will what I want."

When fashion brand Cole Haan teamed up with the New York City Ballet to design a line of ballet flats, it did not simply use images of beautiful ballerinas in its ads for the shoes (though that is part of it). It also approached T Brand Studio, the division of New York Times Co. that produces advertising content meant to look like Times articles.

The feature that T Brand Studio created, "Grit & Grace," is a masterful example of what is often known as branded content, or native advertising. It profiled the three dancers involved in the Cole Haan partnership, with beautifully shot mini-documentary videos and a lengthy article. The focus was not on style or fashion, however, – the elements that are most closely allied to the Cole Haan brand – it was on the dedication, athleticism, and even suffering of the dancers who give their lives to the mastery of ballet.

It's a deep dive into a rarefied and sometimes brutal world that advertisers are betting will resonate with consumers – especially female ones. Some of the Times-produced videos also appear on the Cole Haan website, where photos of beaten-up pointe shoes accompany drawings of the designs for the line of flats.

Dancers' visibility in advertising has coincided with a more widespread popular awareness of dance. TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance have pushed some fans into adult dance classes. No fitness studio is complete these days without a ballet barre or dance-themed group class.

Roughly one year ago, the National Ballet of Canada seized on the trend, and began opening up its building for "In Studio" fitness classes when the dancers were not using the space.

Lululemon Athletica Inc. has used some of the National Ballet dancers as "brand ambassadors." The company gave the dancers free clothing, and took photographs of them in the gear, according to the ballet's director of communications, Julia Drake. Principal dancers Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté have been featured in ads for Rolex, she said.

"They're really powerful, extraordinary people," Ms. Drake said. "Why wouldn't you want to use them [in ads]?"

Dancers' beauty has long been a theme for advertisers wanting to present an aspirational image to female consumers. Years ago, jeweller Birks ran memorable ads with the tag line, "Neck by Karen Kain. Necklace by Birks."

But Ms. Drake said she understands why advertisers are focusing more on the athleticism of the dancers as well, especially for brands such as Under Armour.

"Most of us can't look like that, that's for sure," she said. "But I think everyone appreciates the discipline of what it takes to do what they do. It's like comparing yourself to an Olympic runner. Most people aren't built that way."

Style and beauty are still a factor, however. Last Christmas, liquor brand Bailey's created a holiday commercial with an updated reimagining of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker set at a dreamy party at a club called Candyland. The ad was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, best known for his work on Darren Aronofsky's nightmarish ballet film Black Swan. (He is also known for his subsequent marriage to its star, Natalie Portman, whose wattage helped bring ballet further into vogue.)

"It's one of the few areas where you have this combination of very high performance, very high discipline … and style," said Antonella Mei-Pochtler, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group who studies marketing to women.

But ballet also projects an image of female physical perfection, which Ms. Mei-Pochtler cautions could also backfire.

"It's a big issue we found in our research: Women live with a lot of inner tension, and one important tension is the projection of a perfect body and a perfect shape," she said. "… I wonder whether there are other ways of expressing female strength and discipline, which are less enervating for some women."

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Karen Kain's surname.

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