The underwear ad that's causing a stir.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 9 2002 10:54 AM

Boxer Rebellion

The underwear ad that's causing a stir.

Sometimes, in advertising, it's the simplest ideas that get attention. A case in point: the current Kmart/Joe Boxer commercial in which a man dances happily in his underwear. You can see the spot here, via Ads.com, or here, through the Joe Boxer site. The commercial and its star have made an impressive splash—but why?

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The ad: It's a mere 15-second spot, and it's easy to describe. A very good-looking black man, wearing nothing but white boxers, does a silly dance, on a set done up to look like a brightly colored and highly stylized living room. The background music is a swingy and infectious tune called "Jet Sounds," by Nicola Conte. The dancer sports an enormous and childlike smile. There's no speaking in the ad, but it closes with onscreen words to the effect that Kmart now sells Joe Boxer merchandise.

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Happy news: The spot is part of a series produced by TBWA/Chiat Day to promote the availability of Joe Boxer clothes in Kmart's stores. The story goes that at Los Angeles auditions for the campaign, a model who goes by the name Vaughn started doing his "boxer boogie"—a press release calls him the dance's "creator"—and the powers that be were simply wowed and gave him his own ad.

Some readers have told me they love the ad, and they clearly aren't alone. Vaughn has appeared (and I assume has boogied) on Extra, The CBS Early Show, and the new Caroline Rhea Show, and has reportedly been asked to do Showtime at the Apollo. The Detroit Free Press says that Kmart has been selling $20 million worth of Joe Boxer duds a week since Aug. 2. (Vaughn, whose full name is Vaughn Lowery, is a Detroit native.) A Kmart spokesman tells the paper: "It's great validation for the company and the new direction Kmart is taking. It says we're sexy, irreverent and fun." And inevitably Vaughn has his own Web site.

Unhappy views: Of course, not everyone likes the ad. It is, after all, a grinning-and-dancing black man, and it's no surprise it reminds at least some people of the unpleasant history associated with such an image. (Out there in the land of blogs, you can find Stepin Fetchit comparisons and rebuttals here, here, and here.) I have some sympathy for these views, and it's better to at least raise the issue than not to, but I don't think Vaughn's blackness has much to do with the ad's apparent popularity. I think that it's Vaughn's goofiness people like; that they would respond to it even if he were white (although if he were, it would probably be a good idea to put him in dark boxers, for purposes of visual contrast); that a black man has as much a right to be goofy as anyone else.

I might feel differently if the ad agency had started out with this image in mind and auditioned 400 African-American actors to see which one had the most submissive smile, but that seems not to be the case. The goal here was not to riff on some racial stereotype; it was to evoke an emotion and get attention. That's the goal of most advertising, and brand-pushers often gravitate to ideas that are so quick and blunt and easy that they are border on the cartoonish and frequently involve somebody acting the fool. This is not a fringe ideology in commercial-think, it's the most mainstream one possible. So congrats, Vaughn—it's a ridiculous club, but you're an honored member now.

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Used mascots follow-ups: In case you missed this in "The Fray," a number of readers of my earlier column on the appearance of the Pets.com sock puppet and the Taco Bell dog in spots for other advertisers wrote in to tell me that, as one put it, I was spreading a "common myth" in my offhand parenthetical reference to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog as a "parody" of the Pets.com puppet. I gather Triumph came first, so I stand corrected. Meanwhile, readers Stacey N. and Darla J. both told me something interesting, which was the identity of the original Pets.com puppet's voice: It's Michael Ian Black, who plays Phil Stubbs on the show Ed and who, as I speculated, is not doing the voice in the new ads. Thanks for the info.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.