Bikini Battle: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

Jim1It’s the time of year again when Sports Illustrated, during the depths of winter, tries to remind the chilly male what it means to be where it is warm… and girls in bikinis are everywhere you turn.

The 2015 cover features Hannah Davis, an American model most famous, before this cover, as being the former girlfriend of Derek Jeter, 16 years her senior. I won’t link to images of the cover here, which are readily available to anyone with an internet connection, but let’s just say, she is a) very pretty, b) wearing a bikini and c) doesn’t look like she’ll be wearing it for very long.

This year’s cover has instigated a flurry of admonishments with the usual counters.

Forbes suggests such a cover demonstrates the decline of Sports Illustrated. The walk from there isn’t far to see it as a sign of the desperation of “dead-tree” media in general. Others have opined that it gives women one more things to worry about (vaginal reconstruction, anyone?). The Sydney Morning Herald asks a similar question with “is the mons pubis the new thigh gap?”

Does this latest cover of SI’s swimsuit issue do something new? Does it “move the line” for media consumers and in turn marketers alike by pushing the envelope on what is acceptable?

The thing is, all this moral panting seems to be over what is essentially the same phenomenon year over year. That is, public acts and images relating to sex or violence that appear to be somehow more extreme than those that came before, used in the service of furthering commercial interests by appealing to human prurient interests.

The big difference this year versus covers past – many of which stir the same kind of controversy as this year’s — is in cover layout with the side bar text teases of what’s inside. To some extent, they’ve gone “Playboy” with they’re “goin’ south” and “her first time” copy.

The only difference between this latest cover as opposed to other covers, or many past covers, is that there is copy that states explicitly what the swimsuit issue has always been implicitly: a hook to buy while being porn for men either too afraid or too ashamed to engage the real thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). The SI swimsuit issue has always been, like the Victoria Secret’s catalogue, that sexual wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Yes, there is more explicit than implicit exhibition. But it isn’t like somehow SI swimsuit used to be “Pride & Prejudice” and it’s now been transformed into “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.”

I am no fan of the coarsening of public space. And if that is what people were really debating, what with storeowners being asked to cover the cover and whatnot, I might agree. This coarsening has a lot of causes, some of them noble — increased democratization of the individual and the importance of that individual– and some of them not — media encroachment and saturation into more places of the public sphere, the movement of private experience into public space via mobile devices.

Is this latest issue of SI’s swimsuit issue appropriate for display in a public workspace? Probably not. But has it ever been?

The publisher’s product is a magazine. Their goal is to sell as many product units as possible. This does that. But just the cover art alone would only sell to those aforementioned pornography-shy individuals if that was what the form the cover takes was all about. It is the ensuing – and predictable – controversy that gives additional lift. Media’s primary sales tactic is conflict, not just imagery. In Martin Lindstrom’s book, “ buy.ology” from a few years back, his research found that sex doesn’t really sell. Or it does, but not as much as our public debate and conventional wisdom suggests it does.

But that’s the point: to have the debate. Tension is good for business.

The kerfuffle is just part of the regular method of sales for this particular product. There is no shift in the boundaries of social mores, and while this particular issue had a lot more multi-channel support (digital, apps, etc.) than previous issues, the boundaries of marketing – or what’s acceptable in marketing – didn’t change, either.

The marketing world isn’t changing through punctuated equilibrium, but through the iterative means of natural selection through adaptation. This cover that does really look like most other covers before it to anyone outside of advertising is not a catalyst for change. It is really more of the same.

As always, you can chose not to look at it and not to advertise in it. But that’s nothing new.

Ever thus.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.