CNBC's "Business Models" Serves Up Eye Candy Masquerading As News

Last night, CNBC aired its heavily-promoted special "Business Model," which was, of course, a thinly veiled excuse to feature scantily-clad Sports Illustrated swimsuit models on the financial news channel for an entire hour.

The website description promises:

CNBC's Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell takes an unprecedented look inside the most profitable single-issue magazine franchise in the world. Find out how business, beauty, fashion and sports come together to create this much-anticipated, multi-dimensional franchise that alone generated 7 percent of Sports Illustrated's advertising revenue in 2009.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue means big business not only for parent company Time Inc., but also for the models, advertisers, fashion designers and locations that grace its pages. Rovell gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the scouting, set-up and inner-workings of the photo shoots as he travels to one of the exquisite undisclosed locations and interviews the models vying for the ultimate prize-being featured on the cover of this year's issue and becoming a household name.

However, this translated to long, lingering, steamy looks at the models and the bathing suits. The program was about 80% SI puff piece, featuring the models at play, getting wet, and talking about their lives while writhing on blankets and towels. (A friend described the program as "porn for Republicans"). And indeed it was - CNBC was attempting to a serious tone but what ended up on television was remarkably similar to the videos on the Sports Illustrated site.

Producers did include segments on the people behind the issue, who, perhaps surprisingly, are overwhelmingly female. Considering the Swimsuit edition is aggressively marketed to men, it was kind of mind-boggling to discover how many women are involved in the creation of the magazine: the two chief editors of the Swimsuit issue have been women, and much of their support staff is female as are many of the designers whose wares are featured in the magazine and on the models.

Taking a look at the grim realities of the current magazine market, the piece opened by explaining where the Swimsuit Edition fits into the media landscape.

The original editor, Jule Campbell, was tasked with creating the very first swimsuit issue.

Campbell, who oversaw the issue for more than three decades, is legendary for helping to shape it into the industry beacon it is today. She pioneered the idea of listing the names of the models next to their photos, in the same way Sports Illustrated listed the names of the athletes. This simple addition made the magazine more lucrative the models, helping many of them become household names.

Campbell also took inspiration from her contemporaries - she noticed that Glamour magazine listed a "where to buy" feature at the end of each issue, and believed she would do women readers a disservice if she didn't provide the same sort of information. This small inclusion has launched the careers of women designers like Lisa Curran (bikinis) and Margaret Maggard (bhati beads).

MJ Daly, the current editor of the swimsuit edition, explained the appeal of the issue is that "Swimsuit is sexy, never vulgar." Something must be working - the issues sells an average of a million copies at newsstand, at a higher price point ($6.99) than the average issue of Sports Illustrated. In addition, the Swimsuit edition can stay on newsstands for months since the content has a long shelf life.

The documentary spent mere seconds on "critics" (flashing a picture of the National Organization for Women website) who accuse the magazine of sexism, quickly transitioning to a Sports Illustrated editor who explained he is "careful to not offend their core audience." SI execs noted that subscribers can opt out of the swimsuit edition, in exchange for an extended subscription, but less than 1% of subscribers have ever made the request. Female readers are also taken into consideration - Daly claimed that 22 million female readers use the issue as a shopping guide each year. "We're the fantasy factory," Daly said, referring to male and female fans.

Aside from the history of the magazine, CNBC occasionally touched on actual business opportunities it provides. Sports Illustrated has managed to diversify its income stream from the popular supplement, expanding from newsstand revenues and advertising revenue to a different kind of marketing mix. Currently, SI rakes in 60% of its cash from the print magazine and ads, 30% from their web and mobile initiatives (like apps) and 10% from event and experiential marketing.

One of its major coups was partnering with sponsors on experience based campaigns. The most successful of these was a partnership with Taco Bell for the "Direct Daniella" campaign, where participants could pretend to be the photographer on a swimsuit model photo shoot. Feminist sites protested the exploitative campaign, but SI considers it a success, and has continued the expand the brand
integrated marketing.

Most recently, Sobe stepped up by providing a targeted advertising video, web site banner advertising, and sponsoring the ever popular body paint swimsuit.

CNBC's "Business Models" Serves Up Eye Candy Masquerading As News

Advertisers agree that the Swimsuit Edition is a wet dream - in more ways than one. (An SI executive explained that the clients would "like to see a hologram of these girls if we could do it.") Jackie Woodward, representing Miller Coors, explained how her company has incorporated the Swimsuit issue into its marketing strategy: The beer company is planning a online consumer experience for 2010 - the "Greatest Of All Time" swimsuit model bracket. Users will vote on the hottest models of all time, using a playboard flanked by two Miller Lite bottles.

As Woodward explains: "Who doesn't want to touch the brand? Who doesn't want to get closer to this brand?"

Woodward is correct - late night television, media websites, and most major news outlets have gotten in on the action, featuring the Swimsuit edition and cover model Brooklyn Decker as a major selling point for their content. Apparently, eye candy is a worthwhile investment.

Business Model: Inside The Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Issue [CNBC]
Swimsuit 2010 [Sports Illustrated]
Taco Bell's misogynist hot sauce [Feministing]