RACE AND THE UNDERWEAR INDUSTRY

Men's underwear and the adherance to the caucasian ideal.



INTRODUCTION

Here’s one of those editorials I promised, replete with opinions and commentary and it’s a hot button issue to boot: advertising, race and the underwear industry. I have always had an opinion about the noticeable lack of diversity displayed in modern advertising imagery for men’s underwear but a media announcement really brought these thoughts to the forefront. 2wink underwear announced that they had changed their primary product photo model from a young brunette white guy to….a blonde white guy.


MEN'S UNDERWEAR MODEL DIVERSITY REVIEW


Now, I’m not trying to single out 2wink underwear, I think they have a great product and they can choose whomever they want to show wearing their underwear, but there’s something about featuring yet another Abercrombie-like clone that starts to wear thin after a while. To be fair, fellow Australian designer/manufacturer Aussiebum (who has deeper pockets and more advertising budget to photograph a lot more sessions with a lot more models) is also guilty of this Caucasian-idealized imagery in their campaigns.

I have to wonder if either of these companies ever considered featuring a sexy Aborigine man for their campaign? Would they say that it wouldn’t be “commercially viable” to use other ethnicities in their campaigns? I don’t know, but I’d wager sales would still be strong if not stronger if they started thinking about the non-white consumer who has billions of dollars to spend who might appreciate a company that considers the broader range of ethnicities to be seen in the real world. The lack of diversity spans all areas of the underwear market from manufactueres, to advertisers to retails sites, apparently white just sells better. A quick review of current sites doesn’t help matters, let’s take a look:

2xist



2xist is currently featuring their Varsity collection with several group photos with opportunities for broad diversity but in a group shot of no less than 7 models only one is not white. If I’m going to be particularly critical I would also point out that the African American man happens to have a very “light” complexion. To be fair, 2xist has featured other minorities in their ad campaigns-as a review of previous ad photos in their gallery reflects-but those are not the most common images you will see across their site, nor in any of their retail environments. In addition, taken as a whole, the entire gallery of previous ads is still vastly outnumbered by white models compared to non-white models.

Cin-2



Cin-2 is known for being in the whites-preferred club as they only feature product photos using the same white model throughout all their collections and their advertising campaigns are pretty much white across the board. You might remember Cin-2’s first launch campaign using 4 white models in a provocative arrest situation as shown below. It seems to me that at least ONE of the models could have been another ethnicity. Maybe even a provocative play on race with the white guy as the “criminal” being arrested by an African American cop? Or would that be too controversial?

Calvin Klein



More blond surfer types abound on the Calvin Klein website and in their previous models used for packaging. I’ll give them credit for using Antonio Sabato Jr. back in the 90s…but that was back in the 90s and for nearly a decade since it’s been a non-stop parade of white models. Let’s not kid ourselves either, Antonio Sabato Jr. isn’t exactly what most people would say represents a strong “ethnic” look. Thankfully, Calvin Klein has recently contracted Djimon Hounsou for a 2007 fall campaign which is a great move forward for highlighting more diversity for CK, hopefully this is a trend and not a temporary blip.

Dugas Underwear



This I feel is a particularly unfortunate one to point out because I really like Dugas Underwear and own a large collection of their superb line. In the interests of fair play, however, I couldn’t help but notice that despite being a Japanese designer and manufacturer, they feature nothing but white models for their product photography. What kind of message does that communicate? Are Japanese men less model-perfect or commercially desirable than a white male?

Ginch Gonch



This one surprised me because I had the impression that Ginch Gonch was going to score better on the ethnic representation scale given the young, and more internationally targeted nature of the company but a review of their current site and previous campaigns reveals only 1 token African American model among the plethora of Caucasian models. The print campaign image shown below is typical of Ginch Gonch’s diversity mix...in other words: none. All right, you get my point, and there are a multitude of additional examples to point out. Are there any positive examples to highlight? Not all is lost, there have been some recent standouts that have worked to improve the diversity landscape and hopefully they signal a trend or at least a small step forward.

Undergear



Maybe because of the company’s maturity or its ability to feature many models across their catalogs and website, but Undergear has really done an admirable job of incorporating ethnic diversity in its product photography. The increase in diversity was most noticeable around 3-4 years ago when they started featuring more African American, Asian and Latin/Hispanic models. Ultimately I believe this increase in diversity has really helped the artistic representation of their products and the company. It wasn’t hard to find African American, Hispanic and even an Asian model featured on the site which is a surprisingly good amount of diversity for a mainstream underwear company-props to Undergear! Now I think most reasonable people would have a hard time saying that these weren’t highly attractive and very commercial-friendly models that will SELL those underwear products they’re wearing.

Rufskin



Clothing Rufskin features a solid mix of ethnicities across their product site including Brazilian and African American models. Of particular note is that the ethnic models are featured prominently throughout the site on several pages creating a very balanced mix across the board. Way to go Rufskin! I think this kind of image-awareness definitely helps the international appeal of their brand.

Artificial Flavor



Besides offering some great clothing designs, recent arrival to the underwear scene Artificial Flavor gets major points for featuring 3 African American men, an African American woman and an Asian male on their home page (including the flash slideshow). The high profile placement and multiple photos really help highlight the ethnic diversity Artificial Flavor has invested in their marketing campaign. Another major winner for reflecting how the real world can enjoy their products.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS


So what’s the big deal you might ask? Well, on one hand you’re right, no big deal, let these companies do whatever they want to sell their products, it’s capitalism at its finest: give the market what it wants (supply and demand). On the other hand there is something deeper to think about here. The underlying issue that makes depictions of ethnic diversity matter in the underwear industry and any other major fashion industry is how the repetition of media images can make serious and long-lasting impressions on people. If we become socialized to the concept that only blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white models can be considered “sexy” then we begin to create an extremely narrowly defined world. A world where we consistently search for an ideal that has been artificially ingrained in our subconscious, quite possibly unaware that life and relationship choices may be made for the wrong reasons. I realize this isn’t necessarily news to most people, and I would hardly be the first to comment on ethnic diversity in the media but I believe it’s worth telling the story as many times as possible and to support those companies/individuals that are taking steps in the right direction.

Am I saying boycott any company that doesn’t meet the minimum standards of diversity? Well, probably in an ideal world yes, but reality is that this is unlikely to happen. We buy what we do for more complex reasons than simply the photo of the model in the ad or on the box. What I would ask of you, is that you be observant about the images being put out there for your consumption and take a minute to consider what they might be saying on multiple levels for yourself and for society. It also never hurts to send a note to those manufacturers and retailers either, let them know you love their products but would really appreciate seeing more diversity in their advertising-remember, they are trying to sell to you as a customer so your opinion can make a difference.

Lastly, please help me highlight any other good examples of companies/retailers that have done a good job of representing the broader range of human colors out there by adding your comments in this blog. I’ll try to follow-up with more examples in another post should they come to my attention.

Cheers!

Underwear Guy

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