question of the week
Does ‘that’ Jeremy Allen White ad signal a new guard of celebrity ads?
The actor’s Calvin Klein ad has taken the world by storm - but is it offering anything new in the way of advertising?
23 January 2024
“Women want him. Men want to be him.” An admittedly uncomfortable and outdated quote about the International Man of Mystery Austin Powers, it's a sentiment that some have recently tried to apply to the man of the hour and ‘boy next door’ - Jeremy Allen White. The actor’s topless appearance in Calvin Klein’s latest spot is perhaps being talked about more than his award-winning performance in TV show The Bear. If he wasn’t beforehand, he is now a full-on celebrity crush.
BUT...does the underwear-promoting ad offer anything new in the way of advertising? A hugely popular and social-media-trending celebrity stripping down and looking moodily into the camera like Ben Stiller’s Zoolander is hardly a groundbreaking idea.
BBH originally created the ‘boxer shorts ad’ with its Levi’s laundrette spot back in 1985 and the agency's co-founder Sir John Hegarty recently highlighted that while Calvin Klein has selected the right Emmy-winning man at the right moment, the ad lacks an idea, failing to express some kind of truth or insight. “Art without truth is just decoration,” he added.
The ad has also sparked discourse around objectification and double standards with regards to the way women are viewed through a male gaze in ads. People are debating whether it is in fact right to sexualise Jeremy Allen White given the troublesome nature of the opposite scenario. As it happens, singer and actress FKA Twigs recently had an ad for the same brand banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for “irresponsibly objectifying women”.
With the sexualisation debate to one side however, it is undeniable that the actor has a huge fan base of both mainstream and slightly edgier audiences. His indie (and less blockbuster) TV and film performances, his suave fashion sense and calisthenic fitness routines don’t necessarily fall into the same category as other more ‘traditional’ A-listers, such as Chris Hemsworth, Michael B. Jordan and Henry Cavill, to name but a few. For one thing - yes it’s still somehow relevant in 2024 - he lacks the height of the aforementioned, and has been credited with contributing to the reinvigoration of the ‘short king’.
Yet, despite the argument that the ad offers nothing new and that it may be sexualising - is the sheer popularity of this atypical A-list personality enough to win the trust of consumers and drive growth for brands? Is there something to be said for a new guard of famous personalities and a “new” face of influence? He - or at least his TV character - also represents a new breed of post-Covid man who is mindful of the need to connect more and take care of his mental health. Will this require a new kind of brand partnership, that requires a willingness to give up a degree of creative control and creative ideas? Or is this just the same old good-looking celebrity looking cool in an ad trope? We ask the advertising industry’s finest planners for their takes.
Will Grundy, head of planning, adam&eveDDB
An extremely wise person once said, “it took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
It seems to me that the one thing more fashionable, currently, than talking about changing man is talking about, well, Jeremy Allen White.
And who wouldn’t? After all, he’s an Emmy-winning actor for one of the most profoundly moving and brilliant shows created in recent times…and he looks bloody good in a pair of white pants.
But does this signal some sort of sea-change in the type of celebrity at whose alter we worship? Not so fast. Because from where I’m sat, and it may well be the January Blues kicking in, or – more likely – the ever widening ring that seems to be forming around my own flabdominals, I see two things.
Firstly, I see a celebrity whose most recent explosion of fame owes as much to his six-pack as his stage-craft. Using muscles to sell masculinity is hardly a modern or revolutionary concept. Probably a very effective one, mind.
Now let’s consider his break-out role in The Bear. Don’t get me wrong: I love The Bear. It gets my stomach rumbling. It gets my eyes watering. It touches on important issues I care about – like suicide – that we should all be discussing more.
But does Camy Berzatto represent a new type of man to which we can all aspire or, better still, relate? Again, I’m not quite sold. We’re talking about a character fundamentally underpinned by age-old (and I would say downright dangerous) tropes of a man entrapped by his own emotions, ensnared by his own guilt, engulfed by his own ambitions, and convinced that his only path to redemption lies through suffering. So whilst he may well be a demon in the kitchen and whilst he wears a plain white T better than almost anyone else out there, a prophetic symbol of a new form of masculinity he sure isn’t.
It seems that unchanging man has won again.
Now, who fancies a sandwich?
Theo Izzard-Brown, chief strategy officer, Dentsu Creative UK
The internet consensus is pretty clear. JAW’s thirst-trap CK ad was a welcome start to the year. I saw one red carpet interviewer breathlessly thank a visibly bashful Allan White “on behalf of all women, everywhere”. Thousands of reposts and as many knowing “oui chef” comments later I imagine OG fashion house CK is feeling chuffed to have successfully blown the dust off its brand. Job done.
Is Allen White the new face of celebrity influence? Not especially. Sure … he manages to squeeze two seasons of low-key The Bear cool factor into those tighty-whities alongside a freshly chiselled physique; by contrast Mark Walhberg was a dancer only really known for his abs.
But both men exist in the same goldilocks zone of talent men want to be, and women want to be with. Which is no doubt useful to CK as my guess is a lot of women buy their partners’ boxer shorts. The same insight Old Spice made much of when casting Isaiah Mustafa to sell its shampoo.
Hegarty is right to suggest the work’s lack of an idea renders it ‘decoration’ but he’s entirely wrong to bemoan the fact. High fashion has always worked differently to high street fashion. I’m not sure what the idea behind Michelangelo’s David is but I know that millions draw deep abiding pleasure gazing upon his idealised male form, and that’s enough.
Hegarty’s not so humblebrag that he kickstarted the UK’s love of boxer shorts is what the IPA would say call an ‘unintended business effect’ and would no doubt from Levi's POV (a maker of jeans not underwear) been considered entirely irrelevant, commercially speaking.
Ben Jaffé, chief strategy officer, FCB London
Who am I to challenge Sir John Hegarty, or any other advertising legend on anything related to creativity? I of course wholeheartedly agree that fashion advertising would benefit from insight, conceptual driven ideas. But, I think a lot of the commentary and critique around this particular campaign is lacking a bit of context.
BBH give context to their iconic Levi’s laundrette ad: “In 1985, model and musician Nick Kamen walked into a launderette to the unmistakable bass of Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine. In less than a minute, Levi's – and advertising – history was made. The 501 became the garment every teenager wanted, with a knock-on effect on boxer shorts sales”.
The context behind the Calvin Klein ad: In 2022, the pilot of The Bear launched with Carmy 'the bear' Berzatto, strung out and dressed in a white T-Shirt and apron, slowly approaching a cage with a bear. In less the 30 minutes (the pilot was just 27 minutes long), a number of stars were born. The Bear became the show everyone was talking about, actor Jeremy Allen White became a sex symbol, and a knock-on frenzy of interest not only surged in the actor, but also the white T-shirts his character wears.
Over the course of the last two years, fans have asked “Can anyone ID the T-shirt that Carmy wears in The Bear?”. People have produced a multitude of answers from Velva Sheen and Merz, to Uniqlo and Hannes. Does Calvin Klein need to have a bigger idea than capitalise on the world’s interest in Carmy and Jeremy Allen White’s choice of White T and tighty-whities? I dunno. I suspect their brand and sales uplift would suggest not. Great advertising, like the Levi’s work creates phenomena. But, it can ride phenomena too.
Mel Arrow, CSO, McCann London
In an out of character turn of events, I was hooked on this year’s Golden Globes coverage. It felt like a new generation of actors stepping out, and they’re funny, consensually snoggy, diverse and not marred by the weird, creepy Hollywood suspicion of yore. Jeremy Allen White is one of them. Intense, supportive to his co-stars and with a ‘could be Steve from Sex and The City’s cousin’ aesthetic that no one can resist. It was a genius and timely move by Calvin Klein to cast him. But it was the other smart thing they did that I think we need to learn from. They let him be the idea. It annoys me when I read people saying that the ad is devoid of an idea. It’s not, it’s bursting at the seams with them. It forces us to confront our desires and our obsessions and feel them. It asks big questions without trying to answer them: who do celebrity bodies belong to? Can you objectify a man? Who do we worship? What does it mean to be vulnerable? Is it shameful to enjoy this? It’s not lacking in ideas, it’s just that none of them derived from a script, they came direct from the zeitgeist, society and thousands of years of culture and existence instead.
I have always been a fan of the phrase ‘just enough strategy’. It’s a reminder that in the pursuit of the right outcome, you should be attuned to the exact amount of strategy needed to achieve it. Sometimes it’s lots, most often it’s less. Perhaps, in the wake of one of the biggest advertising moments of recent times, when the whole world stopped and watched an ad, the phrase ‘just enough creative’ needs to have a moment. Our industry needs to be deft, confident, culturally aware and brave enough to apply just the right amount of creativity to a task. In fact, we need to be the masters of it. Sometimes this means inventing unique concepts and narratives and sometimes it doesn’t. Because we can borrow, we can ride waves and we can do it beautifully.
Amelia Redding, strategy partner, Leo Burnett UK
There’s been a lot of debate over whether there’s an idea in the CK ad. I agree, it’s hard to see little more than ‘sex and celebrity sells’ if you look at it in isolation of context and culture.
But the strongest ideas are born in culture, and the pull of the CK idea lies smartly in the accumulation of populist cultural ideas and controversies that roll up into this ad and are making it a hit.
The idea The Bear is awarded as a comedy, yet it’s intensity and angst feel far from a conventional comedy, more a reflection of the mood of a world in crisis.
The idea that we’re in the 'Ugly Hot Guy Era' - think Barry Keoghan too - and the shift towards a new type of everyman celebrity becoming the ‘Internet’s Boyfriend’.
The idea, or myth, that Jeremy Allen White has become an ‘overnight’ phenomenon - his role as Lip in Shameless ran from 2011-21 - it may have recently accelerated but he certainly didn’t build a fanbase overnight.
The idea that it is fans who now hold the power; through socials and UGC, fandom propels celebrities to star status. Brands ride the wave of that.
Jeremy Allen White may seem like a new guard of celebrity, but what is perhaps more pertinent is that there is a new guard of brand winners: the CKs, who tune into the new cultural context and can deliver populist creativity by listening to fans, understanding their power, and tapping into the cultural trends that will keep their brand equities fresh and current.
Asad Shaykh, head of strategy, Grey London
I love Jeremy Allen White’s character in The Bear. But I’ll be honest. His character ‘Carmy’ might be a newer face of pseudo-modern masculinity, but there is nothing new about him as a good-looking white guy for Calvin Klein. Marky Mark Wahlberg circa 1990s anyone?
The only worthwhile brand partnership opportunity Calvin Klein had was not with Jeremy Allen White.
It was with FKA Twigs. But Calvin Klein blew it.
Let’s put our sexual biases aside and analyse these two images. I ran an algorithm on both to calculate who is quantitatively more exposed in each.
Jeremy Allen White stands at 91 per cent.
FKA Twigs is around 68 per cent.
Yet, it was the FKA Twigs image that was banned by the ASA, clearly pointing out the double-standards our society has when it comes to women.
Calvin Klein had a massive opportunity to back FKA Twigs on this, but they didn’t. They could've put up a fight for the singer, dancer, artist and a performer who uses her body to tell stories - but they couldn’t. They should’ve pushed this issue forward, making a platform for ‘a woman of colour’, the most ‘unheard and over-policed’ segment of our society - but they wouldn’t.
Nike won with Kapernick. For me, Calvin Klein not only lost a cultural opportunity, but also a commercial one. One of resonating with burgeoning future audiences with rising spending power.
Perhaps if more brands stood-up for the black or brown woman, they won’t have to thank themselves in their acceptance speeches like Niecy Nash did. And you know what, she deserves it!
Suzanne Barker, strategy partner, AMV BBDO
I think everyone’s really gotten their tighty-whities in a bunch over this ad! Is it on brand for Calvin Klein? Absolutely. This is what Calvin Klein does best - combining product, sex appeal, and culture.
On product - you can’t miss the brand name and the product is front and center.
On sex appeal - you will likely feel something - whether it’s lust over the sex appeal of Jeremy Allen White or pure jealousy that he looks that good in his underwear.
On culture - Calvin Klein is a master class in using people that culture connects to (how can you forget when they used Brooke Shields in the ‘80s?). And Jeremy Allen White was a slam dunk - not only is he revered for his part in The Bear, but now the audience gets to see him in a surprising, but welcoming, new light.
Overall, I think we’ve gotten so hung up on advertising needing to have a deep insight that we’ve forgotten that sometimes simple ads, shot beautifully, and launched at exactly the right moment in culture can do just the trick.