SI swimsuit issue advertising all an egregious misunderstanding

THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE has come and gone again.
I have incredible admiration for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and no, I'm not talking about the women, admirable though they be. I admire it because I think it is probably the most wonderful piece of self-perpetuating pure hype in the entire media business.

THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE has come and gone again.

I have incredible admiration for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and no, I’m not talking about the women, admirable though they be. I admire it because I think it is probably the most wonderful piece of self-perpetuating pure hype in the entire media business.

Here’s how the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue got started. About 30 years ago, a bunch of S.I. editorial types were sitting in their Sixth Avenue offices tearing their hair. The Super Bowl was over, spring training hadn’t started yet, and the endless basketball and hockey seasons weren’t even approaching the playoffs. Sports had the February blahs, big time.

So one of the editors finally said, ‘Let’s get some chicks in bikinis and do a photo shoot.’ And then they had a short discussion about whether chicks in bikinis were a sport, with lots of guy-type one-liners and nudge-nudge-wink-winks. And then they said, ‘What the hell, it’ll fill four pages,’ and they did it.

And then they started to get letters. And here’s the stroke of genius that launched an empire: they printed the letters.

‘My 15-year-old subscribes to Sports Illustrated for the sole and important purpose of looking at pictures of [venerable hockey player] Gump Worsley.’… ‘My coffee table was not intended to be furniture of ill repute’ … ‘The book of Isaiah sayeth, and woe to those who ignore it…’ And every letter built to a climax – maybe a bad choice of words – of ‘CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION!’

So the next year, Sports Illustrated printed a few more swimsuit pages. And then a few more angry letters. And year by year, the heat of the pictures and the letters intensified.

And pretty soon, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue was an ANNUAL EVENT, on a par with the Fourth of July parade or the Academy Awards or the Groundhog Day search for Wiarton Willie.

In the early years, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue actually contained sports as well. Nahhh, no more, there’s no room. The current Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has 228 pages devoted exclusively to a single subject, with a count of 102 photographs of gorgeous underdressed women, some wearing ‘bikinis’ composed of bottle caps, coffee beans, or chili peppers (God, the hardships I have to go through to provide you with proper statistics).

The bloating of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is largely due, not surprisingly, to advertising agencies. When the issue became an event, the advertising agencies started to take it seriously. They booked ads way in advance for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, as if it were a Streisand special or the final episode of Seinfeld.

And gradually, the phenomenon was discovered not just by the media people, but by the Creative Department as well. Writers and art directors for big-buck accounts got to do ads which would be specially and uniquely created for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alone!

And you know what? These Creative Departments and Media Departments completely blew it. Their understanding of the phenomenon called the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is zilch.

Sports Illustrated, of course, does not care one tiny bikini top whether they understand or not. Sports Illustrated is laughing all the way to the bank. But you care, of course, so I shall explain the egregious misunderstanding in the next issue.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.