Let's talk about sex.
More specifically, sex, and sports, and video games, the perfect trifecta of ways to grab a certain demographic's attention, and hopefully dollars. Watch the above commercial, a web-only spot for 2K Sports' Top Spin 4. I'll give you a couple of minutes if you need some time alone.
What you just saw was Serena Williams, wearing a butt-bearing leotard, thigh-high boots, and tons of makeup and jewelry, playing video game tennis against a leather-clad actress (before an athlete, or a gamer). There is rhythmic grunting. Splashed in big words over Serena's come-hither face is "The World's Sexiest Tennis Player." This isn't about sports any more.
It's about sex, and that's not new. More than any other sport on earth, women's tennis has achieved a parity with its male counterpart, and it'd be foolish, naive or deliberately PC to deny that a large part of that is sex appeal. What is new is marketing that aspect so blatantly, and it's no wonder the commercial is getting buzz.
2K Sports, the publisher, is distancing themselves from the ad. Their official statement:
As part of the process for creating marketing campaigns to support our titles, we pursue a variety of creative avenues. This video is not part of the title's final marketing campaign and its distribution was unauthorized.
Don't you believe it, just like you shouldn't believe the ad was only posted to YouTube by the commercial's actress. That video was made private, but it's since been reuploaded by Serena Williams's YouTube channel. This is a conscious media effort to get people talking, and it's working.
(For her part in the matter, Serena Williams's agent replied to our inquiries with a "no comment.")
It's a surprisingly novel concept: targeting the young male demographic with a female sport. As men are the much larger consumer of both video games and sports, it's just good business sense. But this ad, so in-your-face with its look-at-my-fishnet-stockings cinematography, makes crystal clear who the game, and to some extent the sport is marketed to. It's wholly unlike the family-oriented ad campaigns of women's soccer or basketball — "bring your kids to the game!" Meanwhile, you probably wouldn't watch the 2K commercial while your wife is in the room.
But the question then becomes, are you pushing the sport at all? I see this, and I'm thinking more DOA Volleyball than anything else. Dead or Alive, a typical fighting game known for its bouncy-bouncy female fighters, later decided to make two whole games devoted to those bouncy-bouncy fighters doing nothing but play beach volleyball. Watch the opening cutscene, compare it to the 2K Sports ad, and tell me which glorifies athletes, and which one merely objectifies bodies. And is there even a line between the two?
Serena Williams more than anyone else has been adept at straddling that line. Sometimes it's couched as athleticism, as in her picture-heavy Men's Fitness spreads. Other times it's ostensibly about fashion, like her photoshoot modeling her own clothing line — women's clothes in Men's Health magazine.
But here, we're finally casting that all to the wind and saying, Serena Williams is sexy, and she plays tennis, and video games, and maybe you should pay attention to those things because Serena Williams is sexy. Subtext is now pretext. Putting it out in the open is almost refreshing, even if 2K Sports "unauthorized" claim only sneakily embraces it. And judging from the tut-tutting from the spheres of sports, gaming, and advertising, I'm not sure we're ready to go all-in on the sexiness angle of tennis just yet.
So who wins with this ad? Not necessarily Top Spin 4, which we learn almost nothing about, and which isn't the definitive tennis video game anyway (many top players don't appear because of licensing issues). Not the sport of tennis itself, which will be the last institution to completely endorse this aspect of pushing their players, especially as Serena can't play actual tennis right now. No, in the end, we're talking about Serena again. When it comes down to it, Serena Williams doesn't so much market sex appeal as she does Serena Williams.