It’s Kate Upton! Again! This time the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover, which hits news stands Tuesday, has her in Antarctica, showcasing her substantial cleavage with a perky snow-white parka that looks great against the matching icebergs and bikini bottoms. (I wore Gore-Tex and fleece when I got there in my early twenties, but I was posing for my mother, not millions of men.)
SI, understandably, doesn’t count on me to buy its swimsuit issue. But, oddly, this year SI does seem to be targeting me with a 12-page style guide sponsored by Target. That’s right: Nestled amid the naked supermodels posing in body paint is an ad-sponsored supplement from the discount retailer that shows women how they, too, can attain that tousled, come-hither look when they’re heading to the beach.
There’s a lot about the SI franchise that’s perplexing, from the media’s fawning blanket coverage to Time Warner’s shock over a “leaked” cover image. (The real shock is that it’s not leaked every year.) What’s clear is why the annual stand-alone issue exists: It has made a billion dollars over the years—generating at least 7 percent of the magazine’s annual revenue—selling sexy women in swimsuits. (Or topless, under a fur-lined parka, in Upton’s case.)
But what’s up with Target? Does it really think this monument to the male libido is the perfect place to pitch women on everyday style? Target spokesman Joshua Thomas notes that “Target has a phenomenally strong swim business” and views SI “as the authority on swim.” The retailer hasn’t advertised in the magazine for a decade or so and has never done anything on this scale. What changed the company’s thinking was the idea of a “minizine,” he says, wherein the company could feature ads that were “very female-focused, showing girls on a girls’ weekend.” Thomas says Target hasn’t yet received any negative feedback.
Is the mass-market discount chain really going to build great buzz with women by attaching itself to this franchise? Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates in New York, doesn’t think so. “It seems like a mismatch of brands,” says Adamson. “Target is a very family-oriented retail brand. They should be in every issue but the swimsuit issue.” Retail consultant Howard Davidowitz disagrees. He thinks Target’s move is “totally rational” because its customers are aspirational. “It would be wacky if Wal-Mart was advertising there,” he says. “The Target customer wants to be cool.” (Hey, tapping into the sex appeal of Anna Nicole Smith worked for Guess, which is featuring the deceased model’s 6-year-old daughter in its spring ad campaign.)
The cult around the swimsuit issue has very little to do with swimsuits or the sport that inspired them. The franchise is built on a kind of pop-candy porn, whereby suits are a flimsy excuse to imagine what’s underneath. That’s when there’s any suit at all: In SI‘s swimsuit empire, women don’t swim. They crouch in suggestive positions on remote beaches or polar bear rugs. (Water messes up makeup.) Even the blurbs borrow more from Playboy than SI during this high holiday for swimsuit journalism, such as a post on SI’s just-launched Swim Daily site (also sponsored by Target) that touts “you admired her during the BCS title game, now check out Katherine Webb like you’ve never seen her before.” Webb, the girlfriend of Alabama’s quarterback, is best known for being drooled over by announcer Brent Musburger during a lull in the on-field action.
For a sense of just how everyday this issue is not, check out the athletes in the issue. It’s striking how frozen and uncomfortable many of them look in their skimpy bikinis. While Kate Upton is a natural when it comes to sticking out her chest, these women look vaguely embarrassed. They’re more accustomed to using their bodies to play sports.
So perhaps Target should think twice about playing off the swimsuit issue or Swim Daily to woo women. Not because it will take a hit in sales. It’s hard to imagine any issue that reaches 70 million readers won’t move the needle for a brand. American Apparel found that models in seductive poses moved underwear and t-shirts, too, until it came close to bankruptcy.
The issue here is reputation. Over the long term, maybe this isn’t the kind of message you want to send to your core demographic. Want to know who really likes girls in bikinis? Fourteen-year-old boys.