Sex Still Sells

ESPN is one of my most watched networks because sports rank among the top forms of entertainment to me. Since ESPN have several television channels including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNNEWS, and ESPNU, I don’t often watch commercials; instead I turn to another channel. On this occasion I began to watch the commercial. ESPN’s own sports journalist







and comedian Kenny Mayne (seen center) was the pitchman. The commercial was for Van Heusen shirts at JC Penny (The screen shot above is from the actual ad).

There is a lack of innovation in the signification of the signifiers, and signified. Using our all seeing “Structuralism/Semiotic” eye we can see exactly what the brand managers had in mind for this advertisement. Viewers who are fully aware of the entire context of the ad would have a dominant reading, and would decode the images as they were intended. Viewers who are unfamiliar with any one of these three images would have a negotiated reading with an adjusted meaning that made sense to them on a personal level but is probably similar to its actual meaning. This is due to the symbols used forming a closed text.

Kenny Mayne is a well known name in sports journalism, particularly to ESPN viewers. This is mainly because unique offbeat dry sense of humor. He has been with ESPN since 1994 and has served as a co-anchor on SportsCenter, and has his own segment during Sunday NFL Countdown called “The Mayne Event”.

To his left (our right) we can see what appears to be a man wearing the Van Heusen brand. The shirt is a stripped polo with a neutral color paired with a black leather wrist watch, matching his belt and dress slacks. The man appears confident, noted by his posture, his shoulders are back and his chin is high. The man is also non-threatening; this is displayed with his hands in his pockets. He appears to be physically fit because there is no undesirable bulge around his midsection but he also doesn’t appear to be unrealistically muscular. We see another ad where a face is not shown to allow the audiences to more easily identify with him.

To Kenny’s right (our left) we can see a woman in a bathing suit in what appears to be a torrential down pour of rain. She is wearing a two-piece red bikini with spaghetti strings and red lipstick to match. She has long dark glistening (most likely due to the water) hair. She appears to be an ideal height and weight (what ever those ambiguous numbers may be).

This woman is actually model and actress Phoebe Cates and most men in their mid to late forties and early fifties know her better as Linda Barrett. She played Linda in the 1982 hit movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This scene made her famous among teenage boys. As the scene plays out in the movie a young man is actually fantasizing about her wanting him.

Kenny Mayne acts as a narrator. At a quick glance a sports co-anchor, a brand of polo, and an attractive woman has nothing to do with each other. He tells us that if our reward for continuing to watch this ad is Phoebe Cates memorable scene. Consumers are inundated with the pop culture figure telling us to use this product and get this girl. In this case the pop culture figure is Kenny Mayne. The product we should buy is Van Heusen polo’s, which are on-sale at JC Penny’s. Our prize is Phoebe Cates, who we have fantasized about.

The men in the ad are not seen full length but the woman is. You should focus your attention on her. It’s hard not to, not only because she is in seductive swim attire but because that swim attire is red, the only bold color in the commercial. We also know that culturally red is a color that represents romance or intense passion such as red roses. The intended representation is carried on from its original text. The pool scene is also played slower.

This commercial very cleverly uses familiarity and intertextuality by juxtaposing old images of Phoebe Cates with newer ones of Kenny Mayne. If you understand one of these icons than you can understand the other. The advertisers have broadened their target base. Even if you don’t understand them in their entirety the fact that they are social paradigms allows you to make basic assumptions. These images are brought together syntagmatically. Your assumptions are what they (in this case Van Heusen) are counting on to create “wholeness” in the ad.

So what importance does this have to our lives? Well anybody who remembers this particular scene of the movie would probably recall how the scene progresses showing nudity and other characters performing lewd acts. Van Heusen is definitely toeing the line of obscenity by taking you up to the very seconds before the scene turns R-rated (or possibly PG-13 by today’s standards). This product is closely related to the very pretty women of your dreams, and not just any women, but the gorgeous women you fantasized about during your youth. This particular scene, from this movie, was chosen for that specific purpose. For authenticity the scene was not recreated. They could have also used one of the several modern interpretations but this may not have been as sensational to the demographic they were trying to reach. That demographic would be men between the ages of 45 and 55 who remember watching the film. As the old saying goes “Sex Sells”. These are the types of association being distributed for consumption.


About John Barr

Double Major Student @ Towson University
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2 Responses to Sex Still Sells

  1. Ally McNamara says:

    John, the title to you blog post is catchy and true! I think some of your terms could use more explanation because readers outside of our class may have no clue what a signifier is or what semiotics examines. From reading your post, I learned a lot about ESPN and the Van Heusen commercial that I have seen a thousand times. I like how you not only looked at the commercial itself but what it could possibly represent because of the model and journalist/comedian shown. I think it is interesting to look deeper into the ads on sports channels because it seems like they are extreme attention-getters for their audience first, then selling a product second. There are a lot of alcohol commercials and commercials such as the one you examined that have a well-known sports figure talking but an attractive woman with the product. Looking at all of your blog posts, you use a lot of great pictures that aren’t just fluff but help prove your point. You also use a lot of links which is great for readers to find more information about the topic. There are a few grammar mistakes in your post. They don’t take away from the discussion but to outside readers, it could lessen your credibility. I think it would be good if you provided your readers with a clip of the commercial to refresh their memory or just in case they haven’t seen the commercial. Great job though!

  2. Pingback: The deluge of blog posts that sunk the most sexist men’s casualwear ad – EVER! | Blogads

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