Fallon Sets Tongues Wagging With Equinox Ads

'Ambiguous' Campaign for Fitness Chain Includes Images of Nuns, Nudity

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Equinox Fitness chose Fallon to be its advertising and media-relations agency back in mid-September, it did so with the idea that the Minneapolis-based shop would bring talk value to the chain's marketing strategy.
Equinox 'Happily Ever' ads feature images of scantily clad or nude men with women in Victorian clothing posing in provocative positions.
Equinox 'Happily Ever' ads feature images of scantily clad or nude men with women in Victorian clothing posing in provocative positions.

Consider it done.

Fallon's first campaign for Equinox hit at the start of diet season, Jan. 1. The three-part push already has drawn cheers and criticism for its bold art, sexual overtones and complexity -- or, some believe, ambiguity.

The first wave of the campaign, titled "Happily Ever," has already appeared in Vanity Fair, US Weekly, the New York Post and the Los Angeles Times and is scheduled to run in Vogue and Esquire. The ads feature images of scantily clad or nude men with women in Victorian clothing posing in provocative positions and the copy "Happily Ever," followed by "What's your after?" in small print.

'Strategically sound'
"The big selling point of Fallon was their creativity," said Hillary Benjamin, senior director-marketing for Equinox. "This new campaign is so strategically sound and out-of-the-box that it will exponentially fill the marketplace on its strength."

In addition to print, a 60-second cinema ad will play in four markets in February and September of 2008. Equinox is also relaunching its website via agency Organic in March to feature a new design and better functionality.

"It's [about] both fitness and lifestyle," Ms. Benjamin said. "We were looking to continue to evolve the brand's lifestyle position. Our members are less motivated by physical results [than] the long-term implications of being physically and emotionally fit. They work hard for their rewards, and in this case, our members expect their ultimate fantasy, their 'happily ever after.'"

Sexual overtones
Fallon hired Paris fashion photographer and director Ellen van Unwerth to shoot the campaign. The photos focus on four themes: female and male sexual fantasy, inner beauty and eternal youth. They all carry sexual overtones, from three nuns painting a nude male model in a David-like pose to women eating fruit off a man's stomach.

"We wanted it to be visually arresting enough so people will understand and take note of the campaign," Ms. Benjamin said.

Though the ads have generated the predictable media buzz, feedback has been somewhat mixed. Some have praised the campaign for being sexy, bold and edgy; critics say the ads are too racy and that they don't explicitly say what Equinox is or what it offers. The chain has had to placate some members who misunderstood the ads' intent.

The overall idea is much bigger than the art, said Bianca Kosoy, creative director of Equinox. "We wanted to push the envelope. We wanted to shock but not offend, to make people think."

Doing extra to get noticed
Concerning the campaign's ambiguity, Ms. Benjamin said efforts have been made in smaller markets to provide supplemental information about the chain. In markets such as New York and Los Angeles, she said, she is confident people will recognize the brand.

"It seems like they're trying to get to the heart of what people aspire to," said professor Mark E. Bergen, marketing chair at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "It gets attention and makes sense [because] it deeply gets to people's aspirations, which is always a good thing to do, and you see a lot of clutter out there, so you need to do extra to get noticed. It gives a high-end club a chance to provide real meaning for its customers. They realize aspirations are emotional and not rational -- connections don't have to be stated."

The fitness chain has 150,000 members at 41 locations in seven states, according to Equinox. The privately held company was bought in February 2006 by real-estate developer Related Cos. for $505 million.
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