Spicy ad in downtown Bethesda draws ire -- Gazette.Net


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She’s been crawling across a pool table on all fours in a skintight dress since January, but it wasn’t until late last month that someone took issue with the model in the window photo at Equinox gym in downtown Bethesda.

That someone on June 28 anonymously launched a blog called Sexism Matters, whose purpose seems to be getting the New York fitness club chain to take down the image. To do so, a petition was started on Change.org and has garnered more than 900 signatures.

And it’s not because the model is violating rule 6.4 of the World Pool-Billiard Association by not keeping one foot on the floor while taking her shot.

According to the blog, the ad, which is on the second-story outside wall of the Bethesda gym on Woodmont Avenue, promotes an offensive image of women, one visible to children.

“Our daughters and sons walk by the billboard outside Equinox Gym every day. They see a woman in a degrading sexual position, being ‘celebrated’ for her hypersexualized and supposed dexterity, with a pool cue and balls. Our children shouldn’t be subjected to this,” the website states. “Our female friends and family shouldn’t be viewed like this, nor forced to conform to it. Our male partners and colleagues shouldn’t be boxed in to thinking this is normal.”

The ad has been out all over the country, said Nicole Moke, a spokeswoman for Equinox, and the Bethesda location is the first to experience any kind of pushback.

But pushback might not be what the high-end fitness club — with locations in New York, Dallas, Chicago and California — is worried about, according to Rebecca Hamilton, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Maryland.

The gym is trying to brand itself as “body-conscious” with these sexy ads, she said, and doesn’t mind alienating a few fuddy-duddies along the way.

In an article published in February on The Deal, a news service that specializes in industry-specific analysis and reports, Michael Dart wrote that several trends were shaping the retail industry: differentiation, income divergence, urbanization and a focus on health.

“Companies have emerged to cater to health-conscious consumers at both ends of the economic spectrum,” Dart said. “At the higher end, sports clubs such as Equinox Holdings Inc. and apparel retailers such as Lululemon and Athleta Inc. provide a luxurious experience and cutting-edge, fashion-forward products.”

Equinox’s racy ads are part of its efforts to set the brand apart from its competition, Hamilton said, adding that this is not an ad you would see for Gold’s Gym.

“There’s a certain set of values they are trying to communicate,” Hamilton said. “So that the right people come and the wrong people don’t.”

The “wrong” people are those who have signed the petition and called the ad sexist, offensive and degrading.

People such as Thelma Triche, a Bethesda resident who regularly shops near the gym and calls the ad “provocative.”

“I don’t like it,” Triche said. “It’s a little objectionable, especially with a lot of kids around here.”

Equinox is clearly not afraid of being “a little objectionable” — after all, it hired photographer Terry Richardson to shoot the ad series.

Richardson is a well-known fashion photographer who has drawn ire for photo spreads, often featuring underage models, that blur the lines between fashion and soft-core pornography.

He also has been dogged by allegations from models that he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior on photo shoots.

In a statement sent to The Gazette, Equinox spokeswoman Judy Taylor wrote, “Terry Richardson is one of the prolific and compelling photographers of his generation. Known for his uncanny ability to cut to the raw essence of whoever appears before his lens, Terry’s vision is at once humorous, beautiful and quite often provocative.”

The popular forum D.C. Urban Moms and Dads had a five-page thread on the ad, with both supporters and detractors posting.

“I personally like the ad. It inspires me as I go to work out at Equinox every day. And it never crossed my mind to think of it as offensive when I walk by it with my kids,” one anonymous poster wrote. “Frankly, I have a hard time comprehending why someone would be so offended by this, let alone go through the effort to start a petition. I’m guessing, if anything, any outrage over this ad will do nothing but create a buzz for Equinox.”

That may be exactly the point, said the University of Maryland’s Hamilton.

“They’ve gotten a lot of attention,” Hamilton said. “They’ve accomplished one goal.”

Whether that buzz translates into more business is yet to be seen, she said.

Formerly a public company, Equinox is now privately held. It was sold in 2006 to Related Cos. of New York, for about $505 million.

Meanwhile, the ad is coming down with or without the petition. According to the gym, the current picture will come down in mid-July to make way for a new one.

ablum@gazette.net