The Internet is aflutter today with news of Dutch department store HEMA’s new push-up bra ad campaign. The campaign features Andrej Pejic, the gender-fungible Australian male model, wearing a come-hither expression and a series of spandex-y wrap dresses, and appearing amply-endowed—in the female sense. It is, of course, nothing new for Pejic to pose wearing women’s clothing; he made news during the spring 2011 shows walking the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, wearing a wedding dress, and he's quickly become fashion's poster boy for androgyny and cross-dressing. This fall, when Pejic was featured in New York magazine’s fashion issue (headline: The Prettiest Boy in the World), he was quoted as saying: “I guess professionally I’ve left my gender open to artistic interpretation.”
It's also not the first time that a lingerie brand has tried to use a member of the opposite sex to sell their product. Earlier this year, a Korean lingerie brand called Vivian made news when it tapped Korean male model, actor, and rapper So Ji-sub to hock its goods. Of course in Vivan's campaign, So wasn't actually expected to wear the underwear; Vivian simply wanted its skivvies associated with So's particular brand of romantic sensitivity. A better corollary may be a 2007 ad campaign for JBS men's underwear. The campaign, which bore the tag line, "Men do not want to look at naked men", consisted of a series of commercials and print ads featuring hot, topless ladies modeling men's boxers and briefs while behaving "like men"—you know, scratching their butts, farting, sitting with their legs splayed, and drinking beer.
I find the JBS campaign about 5 percent amusing and 95 percent distasteful and vulgar. But is the Pejic HEMA campaign, which I’m inclined to like, operating on the same principle? I'd like to think that HEMA is attempting something a lot more complex. On the one hand, HEMA has found a pretty clever way of demonstrating the efficacy of their product. Pejic, while as gamine and feminine as many a stick-thin female model, doesn't even have the hint of breasts in real life; in the ads, he looks almost busty. On the other hand, if HEMA is trying to make a joke about how well their product works, it's a joke probably lost on 90 percent of people who notice the ad while flipping through a magazine. Pejic looks almost too convincingly feminine; only those who look closely, who notice the "Andrej Pejic voor HEMA" printed at the bottom of the page, and who have caught wind of Pejic or bother to look him up--will understand just how effective that push up bra actually is.
But there's another joke here too. It's no secret that lingerie ads have long been a way for companies to legitimize displaying images of almost-naked women in mainstream magazines and on prime time. As the JBS campaign makes clear, the main consumers of those images are not women, but men. Perhaps I’m giving HEMA too much credit, but it seems like they’re deliberately playing with that male audience, taunting potential oglers: Ogle this, but then don’t get mad when you figure out exactly who you’re lusting over.
All bait and switch jokes aside, the best part of the Pejic ad is the way it reminds us of what underwear is actually supposed to do. For a refreshing change, the model in the HEMA ads appears, not undressed, but fully dressed. For women, what's important when it comes to underwear is not whether it makes you look good naked, but whether it makes you look better in your clothes (Spanx, anyone?). And HEMA got that bit really right; Andrej Pejic looks smoking.