Fitness Center Chain Goes Provocative in New Campaign


Equinox print advertisement for the “Happily Ever” campaign.

Equinox advertisement for the “Happily Ever” campaign.

A campaign for a chain of fitness centers is raising eyebrows — and perhaps pulse rates — with a sexy take on the traditional finale to fairy tales.

The campaign, which began this month, promotes the Equinox Fitness Club chain by promising patrons they can achieve their “happily ever.”

“What’s your after?” asks the campaign, the first work for Equinox from its new agency, Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis, part of the Publicis Groupe. The campaign retains a theme that appeared in previous ads for Equinox, which had been created internally: “It’s not fitness. It’s life.”

To turn up the heat, the campaign is photographed by the fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth, who has shots ads for brands like Chanel, Diesel, Guess, Tommy Hilfigerand Victoria’s Secret. She presents images that are provocative as well as playful, meant to illustrate themes like inner beauty and fantasy.

These are the sensual situations, some erotic, some voyeuristic, all featuring scads of well-toned skin:

¶Nuns in an art class sketch a hunky naked model who resembles Michelangelo’s David.

¶A buff hottie chooses a naturally fit woman over her rivals, who have opted for cosmetic surgery and too much makeup.

¶A lithe young man bends over backward, literally, to please the guests at a costume party, by serving as their table.

¶A beautiful older woman in full “cougar” mode celebrates her birthday, surrounded by men of various ages who are vying for her attention.

The campaign, with a budget for 2008 estimated at $3 million to $5 million, includes print and outdoor advertisements, posters at the 41 Equinox fitness clubs and a lavish commercial that will appear in movie theaters and online, which demonstrates how yoga classes at Equinox helped Table Boy — actually, a model named Josh Pence — achieve his flexibility.

There are also plans for a redesign of the Equinox Web site (, to be carried out by Organic, a digital agency owned by the Omnicom Group.

Equinox has long been known for campaigns that celebrated the fit human form, presenting gorgeous models of both sexes in as little clothing as possible. And it is not surprising to find a marketer that owns fitness centers using sex to sell memberships.

Still, the campaign is already drawing attention for the frank approach of some of the ads, which can cut both ways.

It can benefit Equinox to stand out in the category of health clubs, which is crowded with competitors that include Bally Total Fitness, David Barton Gym, Crunch Fitness, Curves Fitness Center, Gold’s Gym, L.A. Fitness, New York Sports Club, 24 Hour Fitness and the old-school standbys of the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A.

Cutting through the clutter is particularly important in January, when the desire to woo consumers thinking of dieting, getting more fit and other New Year’s resolutions leads fitness marketers to flood the media with pitches.

But a campaign that gets noticed because it is deemed too contentious or inappropriate can backfire, especially when a membership at a fitness center is a big-ticket purchase that is rarely made on a whim.

“We knew it would be a little controversial,” says Bianca Kosoy, creative director at Equinox in New York, which is owned by the Related Companies.

“You’re never going to please everyone,” she adds. “What works in New York and Los Angeles is not always well received in San Francisco and Chicago.”

Equinox has clubs in all those locations, along with markets like Boston; Coral Gables, Fla.; Darien, Conn.; and Newport Beach, Calif., and is scheduled to open in cities that include Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Vienna, Va.

To mitigate the severity of any complaints about the campaign, Ms. Kosoy says, “we liked shooting it through the lens of a female photographer.”

Indeed, according to Hillary Benjamin, senior marketing director at Equinox, Ms. Von Unwerth “is known for making women feel beautiful about themselves.”

Her work is “sexy,” Ms. Benjamin says, “but respects the female sex.”

(As for the idea of the men in the ads being treated as sex objects, well, perhaps turnabout is fair play.)

Ms. Benjamin and Ms. Kosoy say they believe the campaign will be appreciated by the Equinox target audience, which Ms. Benjamin describes as well-educated professionals, ages 25 to 55, with high household incomes.

“We call them lifeaholics,” she says. “The one thing that ties them all together is their approach to life: intense, passionate, results-driven, collectors of all things new, who know first about the coolest band or the latest restaurant.”

During the process last summer to find a new agency, Fallon demonstrated it “knew who our consumer is,” Ms. Benjamin says, and also delivered the “big creative idea” that she and Ms. Kosoy was seeking.

“Natural Beauty” is part of the “Happily Ever” ad campaign by Equinox.

Equinox chose Fallon last September over two other New York agencies, Droga5 and Toy.

“The campaign comes from the insight that there’s a deeper reason people work out than to get into shape,” says Eric Sorensen, a copywriter and group creative director at Fallon who developed the campaign with Hans Hansen, an art director and group creative director.

“We all have this idealized fantasy, this endgame, we’re working toward when we go to the gym,” Mr. Sorensen says. “It’s fun to imagine these ‘happily ever afters’ at their most provocative and extreme.”

“Each ad hits on a different theme,” he adds, “because everyone has a different ‘happily ever after.’ ”

As for the idea that some fairy-tale finales may be more Kinsey than Grimm, Equinox is “not afraid to stir the pot, if you will,” Mr. Sorensen says.

That dovetails with the company’s goal of “taking a different approach to fitness,” he adds, by stressing “the life benefit of working out” rather than the short-term results (as appealing as they may be).

All the situations in the ads “are grounded in reality,” Mr. Sorensen says, “but pushed.”

For instance, the attractive older woman at the birthday party “wants to maintain her youth,” he adds, while the Adonis being sketched by the nuns is comfortable enough with his “godlike body” to — as Gunilla Knutson used to say in the Noxema shaving cream commercials — take it off, take it all off.

The print ads are appearing in newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post and The New York Times as well as in the regional and national editions of magazines like Esquire, US Weekly, Vanity Fair and Vogue.

The print outlets are being selected for what Ms. Benjamin calls their “editorial focus on social currency” — that is, they cover subjects that the target audience talks, gossips and buzzes about.

The campaign is intended to run beyond this year, Ms. Kosoy says, and will be refreshed with additional ads.

“There are so many ‘happily evers’ out there,” she adds, and the intent will be to “interpret them in smart, unexpected ways.”

Perhaps one future ad will depict a class of muscular nude models sketching a nun.

MTV Is Looking Beyond ‘Jersey Shore’ to Build a Wider Audience

Published: October 24, 2010
The second-season finale of “Jersey Shore” last week was one of the highest-rated hours all year on MTV. There was, perhaps, no better time to promote another boozy, in-your-face unscripted show.
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A scene from the finale of the second season of “Jersey Shore,” the hit show that has helped increase MTV’s viewing audience.

Instead, in every commercial break, MTV promoted “Skins,” a remake of a scripted British series about the sexually charged trials of teenage life that is scheduled to make its debut in January.

“We were using one of our biggest moments of the year to loudly shout about a very different kind of show,” said Stephen K. Friedman, MTV’s general manager.

MTV is enjoying a renaissance. Written off as irrelevant just a few years ago, the channel was resuscitated this year by the rambunctious cast of “Jersey Shore” and the young parents on “Teen Mom.”

Lest it rely too heavily on those shows, MTV is rapidly diversifying its slate of programs, “Skins” being one example.

“We’re in a constant state of reinvention,” said Van Toffler, the president of MTV Networks Music/Film/Logo Group.

Mr. Toffler is fond of saying that MTV executives have to “embrace the chaos,” especially because MTV has a fickle young audience.

Advertisers and analysts have taken note of the revival. Benjamin Swinburne, a media analyst for Morgan Stanley, said “there’s no question that ‘Jersey Shore’ has been the catalyst” for ratings gains at MTV.

“But they’ve been able to build off that by taking some intelligent risks,” he added.

Investors expect advertising growth to accelerate in the next two quarters at MTV and its parent, MTV Networks, which is owned by Viacom.

Cast members like Nicole Polizzi, better known as Snooki, from “Jersey Shore” get some of the credit, but the rebound is also a result of rethinking the channel’s programs for the millennial generation, as those born in the 1980s and ’90s are sometimes called.

It is happening at a time of wholesale revamping within MTV. A year ago, Tony DiSanto, president of programming, approached Mr. Toffler about wanting to set up his own production company. Mr. Toffler asked him to stay on while MTV strengthened its programming leadership. That is what the last year has been about, as a half-dozen new executives have been hired away from Warner Brothers, E! and elsewhere. Mr. DiSanto will leave at the end of the year.

Under the new guard, flashy reality shows are out — “The Hills,” once a flagship franchise for MTV, wrapped up last summer — and a new buzzword, “authenticity,” is in. It is shorthand for a new “filter” for MTV’s programming decisions.

Until this year, MTV had been shedding viewers for the better part of a decade, falling to an average of 481,000 at any given time in 2009 from an average of 636,000 in 2005. MTV, which the MTV Networks chief executive, Judy McGrath, has said should be the “forever young network,” had clung to Generation X a little too long, some believed, at the expense of the millennials.

Compounding the problem, there was a perception that MTV was flailing online, where its audience was spending more and more time.

“We were the company that didn’t get MySpace,” said Ms. McGrath, referring to Viacom’s failed bid for the social networking site. News Corporation acquired MySpace, instead, and the site has since withered. “I don’t think about that anymore,” she said in an interview last week.

MTV’s music Web sites now have more than 60 million unique monthly visitors.

Mr. Friedman, the former head of MTV’s college channel mtvU, was put in charge of MTV in 2008, after Christina Norman departed to take over Oprah Winfrey’s forthcoming cable channel. He said he sensed that “reality was starting to feel really unreal to our audience,” citing the show “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.” No one believed Ms. Hilton would actually find her new best friend through a reality show.

At the same time, the actual reality shows on MTV — unglamorous stalwarts like “Made” and “True Life” — were picking up new viewers.

“They were inspirational, authentic stories,” Mr. Toffler said. The channel saw a way forward, and most of its new reality shows, like “The Buried Life,” “World of Jenks” and “If You Really Knew Me,” share that DNA.

As a result of MTV’s research about the millennial generation, Mr. Toffler and Mr. Friedman said they had come away thinking that teenagers and twentysomethings nowadays were less rebellious than those in the past. They are not rebelling against their parents so much as they are watching TV with their parents.

These insights have informed the development of new shows, including “Jersey Shore,” which was first conceived as a reality competition show for MTV’s slightly older-skewing sibling, VH1. Mr. Toffler decided to redevelop it for MTV, and what changed says a lot about the channel today.

“As opposed to making it a competition, we accentuated the fact that they come around and support each other — yes, they fight with each other, but they are a family,” Mr. Toffler said. “You even see their parents come in and cook pasta for the house.”

Mr. Friedman added: “Four years ago, you never would have seen that on MTV. Parents were absent!”

Now parenting is the main topic of “Teen Mom,” which is second to “Jersey Shore” in popularity. “Teen Mom,” which features four young mothers, is a spinoff of “16 and Pregnant,” which started in mid-2009 and stunned MTV executives with high ratings out of the gate. Its second-season finale this month attracted an average of 5.5 million viewers, while the finale of “Jersey Shore” averaged 6.1 million.

This year, MTV is averaging 558,000 viewers at any given time, up 16 percent from last year.

MTV is restarting “16 and Pregnant” with new cast members this month, and it is bringing back “Jersey Shore” for a third season in January. Several “Shore” spinoffs featuring individual cast members are also under consideration.

But MTV’s programmers know they cannot rely too heavily on these two hits. “You have to plan for all of these franchises’ obsolescence,” Mr. Toffler said, “and we are.”

The channel recently gave up on production of “Bridge and Tunnel,” a reality show about young people who live on Staten Island. Asked by a reporter if it was simply “Jersey Shore” on Staten Island, Mr. Toffler said, “That’s probably exactly why we didn’t want to do it.”

That comes back to diversification. Still trying to come up with a viable successor to the music video countdown show “TRL,” MTV this month started a pop culture newscast on weekday afternoons called “The Seven.” A scripted show, “The Hard Times of RJ Berger,” started last summer, and four more scripted shows will come online next year, including “Skins” and “Teen Wolf.” “Beavis and Butt-Head” is coming back, too, thanks to a newly reformed animation unit.

“The times when our network has been one-note,” Ms. McGrath said, “have never been as good as the times when we were diverse.”