Only Harley gets it in SI swimsuit issue

When we last met in this space, I was making pronouncements about the communications phenomenon called THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE. I wrote about how advertising agencies throw lots of money at THE ISSUE, and I observed that as they throw the money, they completely blow it.
I guess it's time to try and back up that statement.

When we last met in this space, I was making pronouncements about the communications phenomenon called THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE. I wrote about how advertising agencies throw lots of money at THE ISSUE, and I observed that as they throw the money, they completely blow it.

I guess it’s time to try and back up that statement.

1. How the Creative Department blows it.

When the boss comes down the hall with a Swimsuit Issue assignment, any decent creative team should go into rapture. It’s the ad guy’s equivalent of a wimpy fastball right down the middle, or a shot at an empty net, choose your metaphor. They get to play with at least a full page, in one case even a gatefold, and all they’re looking for is impact. They can’t miss.

They miss.

Half the ads suffer from terminal cuteness. The very first ad in this year’s issue is a two-page photograph of a Miller Lite bottle, posed on a sandy beach with its bottle cap lying in the foreground. The headline is OOPS. MY TOP FELL OFF. That’s it.

On the back cover, using up a particularly large amount of media money, is a gorgeous black-and-white woman next to a full-color Chivas Regal bottle. The headline is YES, GOD IS A MAN. That’s it.

In the many pages between these two extremes, we get more of the same. Heineken shows us a big bottle, a little bottle, and a big bottle, captioned 24-12-24, THE PERFECT MEASUREMENTS. Sam Adams shapes their body copy like a female torso, with two shot-from-above beer bottles as the you-know-whats. Somebody called XM Satellite Radio gives me two price points, fourteen logos, a legal disclaimer and a list of eighty-nine channels, then remembers where they are and slaps on the headline, THE GREATEST INVENTION SINCE THE THONG. Yuk.

But then there’s another bunch of ads that have obviously decided the key to the audience is ‘Let’s all pant together.’ Big Red chewing gum shows a hip-thrusting lass and a lustful youth, headed WE KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING. HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD BE CHEWING.

The Balance Gold Energy Bar weighs in with an all-type-and-package effort claiming STIMULATES PARTS OF YOUR BODY THE OTHER PAGES DIDN’T.

And Buell motorcycles easily win the Borrowed Kinky Interest Prize with TRY SOMETHING NEW THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE HANDCUFFS.

Okay, maybe juvenile is good, if you’re talking to juveniles. But I’m not sure this issue is. Which leads to…

2. How the Media Department blows it.

On page 135 of The Issue, there is an ad headed THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE USED TO BE FILLED WITH UNATTAINABLE GOALS. UNTIL NOW.

It is for an advertiser I have never previously seen in mainstream media. It is for The Princeton Review, a company which promises to ‘raise your score with proven test-taking strategies’. The ‘score’ does not refer to a singles bar, but to the insidious and tyrannical American SAT’s, the standardized tests which determine U.S. university entrance and therefore strongly affect the rest of one’s life.

Clearly, the Princeton Review’s Media Department thinks the audience of The Issue is young, slavering males desperate to catch a glimpse of an upper thigh. I don’t believe it.

I think they’re living dangerously in the past.

Close to 50 years ago, maybe that was the right picture. (Trust me, I was there.) Playboy was amazing, highly sought after…and by today’s standards, about as risqué as the Reader’s Digest. Today, the young, horny male – a redundancy, I acknowledge – has a wide-open choice of corner adult video stores, late-night cable, magazines of every perversion, and the whole rich-and-raunchy Internet. And yet the body copy of that Balance Gold ad still says, ‘If you can stand to be away from this magazine long enough, you might wanna check out Balance.com.’ Pant pant shiver shiver wrong wrong.

You know who I think is the audience for THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE? It’s the significantly older men who Labatt segment carefully into their Carlsberg Years. It’s the guys who still love to look at women, but who have calmed down a little on the subject. It’s the guys who can now savor a single-malt scotch, instead of trying to knock down half a two-four by half past six.

If I’m right – and of course, I am – there’s one ad in this year’s Swimsuit Issue that beats all the rest cold. It’s for the consistently classy Harley-Davidson, and there’s not a bikini or a smirky line in its two pages.

It shows a Wide Glide Harley, parked alone beside a beautiful open road. And it says, quietly, NO. I’VE DECIDED TO OPT FOR A SMALL AND RATHER UNEVENTFUL LIFE.

Nice challenge, Harley. Nice thinking. Nice ad. You get it. All the rest don’t.

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.