Topless models for promotion: is all publicity good publicity?

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One of Melbourne’s largest and most recognisable bike shops, Total Rush, attracted significant criticism this morning after photos of topless models emerged from a store re-launch function last night. Was painting pink bodysuits on topless women a tasteless act that undermines the shop’s dedication to women’s cycling? Or was it a bit of harmless fun that shouldn’t be taken so seriously?

After several weeks and more than a million dollars spent on renovations, the team at Total Rush had a cocktail party last night to celebrate the store’s re-launch. Late in the evening topless models were covered in pink body paint and the guests were invited to have their photos taken with the models.

A photo of the models was published on the official Total Rush Twitter and Facebook accounts and while the photo was quickly deleted from those official accounts, some bemused social media followers took screenshots for posterity’s sake.

The photos taken by Total Rush and others attracted significant backlash on social media this morning:

We spoke with Total Rush founder Simon Coffin to get his perspective on the incident.

“We certainly didn’t mean to offend anybody”, Simon told CyclingTips. “We got the idea from a Mercedes Benz AMG promo launch at Around the Bay that went well and didn’t offend anybody.”

Simon continued by saying that “probably 30% of the people there were women” and that “nobody seemed to be offended”.

But CyclingTips has been told anonymously by someone in attendance last night that “most people were uncomfortable” with the decision to invite topless models along.

The incident is reminiscent of a promo video launched in August last year by clothing manufacturer Limitless Performance. The video attracted widespread criticism for using topless models covered in body paint to promote the company’s new range of men’s cycling kit.

The video was taken down as the negative responses piled up, with a representative for Limitless Performance saying “We were intending to make a light hearted viral to communicate that we just design for guys, NOT that women can’t cycle. Apologies for any offense that has been caused.”

Total Rush founder Simon Coffin offered a similar apology about last night’s event, explaining the company’s intentions.

“I apologise if we offended anybody. Part of this was to raise money for a children’s charity called Freedom Wheels [for] which we raised nearly $5k.”

Last night’s incident arguably compromises the efforts Total Rush have put into the development of women’s cycling in recent years. In addition to organising regular shop rides for women, Total Rush also sponsors a women’s National Road Series team in conjunction with Hyster Forklifts.

As Sarah Davies commented on the Total Rush Facebook page last night:

“To Total Rush management. I thought u support women and valued them as people and athletes … this pic made me sad for those two women and every women [sic.] who saw it.”

Lisa Hocking added:

“That’s a great way to welcome female customers and make them feel comfortable…. Great – so women’s only role in cycling is to look pretty/sexy and be an object.”

Twitter user Simon Mowlam offered an opposing view:

We put this issue to Simon who said: “We’re huge supporters of women’s cycling and didn’t mean for this to take away from that.”

But judging my the backlash this morning, it would appear Total Rush has lost itself more than a few female customers already.

We spoke with Christine*, a keen recreational rider who has had her bike serviced at Total Rush for the past three years and has also bought gear for herself and her husband there in that time. Christine has also introduced her riding friends to the shop.

“My friend purchased an Ultegra Roubaix — her first road bike — there with me in May 2013. I’ve recommended Total Rush to two other girls who bought but without me being there.”

But after last night’s incident Christine won’t be recommending Total Rush again nor will she visit herself.

“I’ve already emailed all my riding buddies to let them know. I’m ashamed to have recommended Total Rush to my friends. Forget it — I won’t be back.”

There’s little doubt that cycling has been a traditionally male-dominated and at-times sexist sport. But things have come a long way in recent times, despite setbacks like Peter Sagan’s squeeze of a podium girl’s backside earlier in the year. If anything, the outrage that particular incident caused shows the progress that’s been made.

“There’s talk of getting rid of podium girls in professional racing — it’s 2013 and that’s the level we’re at”, Christine told us. “Those guys [at Total Rush] are outdated.”

Given this climate of change, it’s strange to think that this particular incident was seen by Total Rush as nothing more than harmless fun. CyclingTips has been told that the models’ appearance was planned more than two weeks before the event giving the team plenty of time to consider whether it was a good idea or not.

Of course there are those that argue that the incident was little more than a bit of harmless fun but if the social media response is anything to go by, the incident might have cost Total Rush some customers and more than a little bit of respect within the cycling community.

*surname redacted for privacy reasons.

UPDATE: Statement from Total Rush

Total Rush, one of Victoria’s leading cycle retailer staged a brand re-launch and charity event on Thursday 5 December attended by 130 customers, team cyclists and supporters. Roughly an equal number of men and women attended.

The launch included a charity auction which raised $4,500 for Freedom Wheels through the sale of a Specialized SWorks Tarmac road cycle frame.

A number of elements at the event were employed to promote and reinforce the Total Rush brand which is based on two distinct colours, avivid pink and black, the colours that have become synonymous with our brand, our cycle teams, rides and events. Complementing the brand promotion on the evening were two female body-artists whose partly clad bodies were painted to resemble the Total Rush riding kit.

While the body artists were topless, which is part of their artistic presentation, their support for the event was extremely tastefully executed and not sexually offensive. At no stage did any of the guests object to their presence and none departed early or complained. In fact the opposite was the case with comment made about the creative approach taken and many female guests requested that their photos be taken with the artists.

Had Total Rush believed the use of body artists would offend, we would have sought an alternative promotion on the night.

The concept for using body artists came from other organisations that have engaged the same talent who are booked through a professional agency. Such organisations include a major luxury car company and a breast cancer organisation, as well as many others. Total Rush adopted the concept because of its successful use by other organisations and believing it to be an appropriate way to communicate our brand; the concept was strongly endorsed by our guests.

Total Rush has a track record of supporting charities, individuals and others and we strongly believe the company is a good corporate citizen. The company and its employees do not condone the blatant abuse of women, the female form, or any individuals, and we submit that our track record demonstrates our dedication to responsible behaviour and tolerance.


Simon Coffin

Rush Cycling Group.