One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Beauty and the Beast, Sports Illustrated and Lessons Learned

"For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light." ~ Jesus, Luke 16:8

I think it's safe to say Disney's marketing strategy promoting Beauty and the Beast was a runaway success. The movie opened with the biggest opening weekend ever for a PG-rated movie and the biggest opening weekend for any movie in March.

A big part of the that strategy was the quote a couple of weeks ago from the director about there being a “gay moment” in the movie. The article was perfectly timed so that the resulting furor would have maximum impact in social media in the week and a half prior to its release date. And a furor they got. It was impossible not to miss the impact of the quote in the week following the article's publishing.

I don't have any doubt that it was intentional. The media have learned their lesson well: get the Christians sufficiently riled up, and you're in for a bonanza. It's too bad many Christians haven't yet learned the same lesson.

One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon is the story of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The issue is by this time an American institution for better and for worse, mostly worse. For those of us under the age of 60, it's just always been there. But its origins lie at a place where happenstance and Christian outrage met.

Sports Illustrated was not always the behemoth I remember when I was growing up. (Print magazines are so 20th century). In 1964 SI was struggling to find a focus and an audience. It was far behind the largest sports weekly of the day, The Sporting News. And it had difficulty in determining exactly what it wanted to be all the time.

When there wasn't any baseball or football to cover, the magazine looked more like an outdoors or a lifestyle magazine. There were cover stories on hunting, travel, outdoors activities, even yachting with John and Jackie Kennedy.

It was anticipated to be a slow news week in mid-January 1964 (the NFL playoffs were usually over by Christmas back then). The managing editor, Andre Laguerre, planned a Caribbean travel story and told the photographer to hire a model to pose in a bikini for the cover. It was a brazen choice at the time, but Laguerre liked to push the boundaries and had little taste for American moralism. 

The cover (see it at this link if you wish) featured the picture with the following caption: "A Skin Diver's Guide to the Caribbean - Fun in the Sun on Cozumel." There was nothing about "annual swimsuit issue" or anything like that. Inside was a travel story with one more picture of the model and some other pictures of beach scenery.

Three SI covers from the 50s
and 60s that have nothing
to do with sports.
The cover created controversy. The magazine received thousands of angry letters and cancellations. At the same time, newsstand sales of the issue exceeded all expectations for a slow news week. Whether those sales were directly related to the anger expressed I have know way of knowing, but that is what happened.

Any time there is reaction, that is gold to marketers. They really don't care if it is positive or negative, as long as there is a reaction. A single issue which generated this kind of controversy and sales made everyone take notice. In the weeks that followed it was Laguerre who came up with the idea to put another girl in a bathing suit on the cover next year and bill it as the "second annual swimsuit issue."

Thus was born one of the most influential publications in American history. By all rights it should have been another one of those early SI issues that seem so weird to us who remember the magazine's heyday in the 70s-90s. But it lives on because of a firestorm of negative reaction from well-meaning folks.

I'm not saying those folks were wrong about the particular issue. I'm sure it was a shock to many subscribers looking for stories about basketball, hockey or perhaps the upcoming Winter Olympics. But if enough of them had simply and quietly pitched the magazine into the trash can and went on with their lives, the Swimsuit Issue wouldn't be around today. 

More than 50 years later, many Christians still haven't learned this lesson while the world has. The world eagerly lays out plans, knowing many Christians will quickly share anything that irritates them on social media without ever considering if they are being manipulated by either powerful media moguls looking for free publicity or by struggling Web publishers looking for cheap clicks. Either way, the manipulation is real and, unfortunately, easy to pull off. If Christians would just once not take the manipulation bait, the people pulling the strings might think twice about it. Personally I think it'd be nice to see Christians be the manipulators for once instead of the manipulatees. 

Note: The information for this article came mostly from an interview I saw a few years ago on TV with Frank DeFord, longtime writer and editor at Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately I could not find a link with the interview, but the basics of what I remember from the interview are confirmed in this article.

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