Monster Thrush, Jeremy Allen White, and the ‘Big Idea’

  • June 26, 2024
  • Reading time: 3 min

By Nicole Jones

As a new season of The Bear launches, I’ve been thinking back to phwoary-furore around the Jeremy Allen White Calvin Klein ad, in January.

I was on honeymoon in Mexico when the ad dropped. Like literally millions of people, I have a tremendous crush on the sleepy-eyed star of The Bear, and was deeply happy to watch on repeat while sipping a margarita.

The ad got a lot of attention. A lot of praise. And, unfortunately, a rather boring stream of sneering commentary on LinkedIn: alright, this looks nice, and he’s muscled – but is this really a good ad? Is it just a sexy man, in a sexy New York skyscape? Is there a big idea behind it? Does it really mean anything?

First of all: have a day off. Second of all: yeah, it does actually. (Especially if, like many B2B marketers, you’re currently preoccupied with the power of brand.)

A story about brand and out-of-market buyers

Allow me to set the scene. I was 22 years old, backpacking through Australia, my days a blur of goon and sightseeing and scuba diving. I was more or less constantly dipping in and out of the sea, having a gorgeous time and engaging in such exciting activities as ‘Tim-Tam Slams’.

Sadly, all was not well. I had an…. Itch. Being a hypochondriac, I immediately convinced myself I had a life-ruining STI, despite a) not having had unprotected sex and b) being faithful to the almost-boyfriend I had left behind in England a few months before. I booked into a free sexual health clinic in Sydney for a check-up, feeling financially grateful this problem hadn’t occurred in the USA portion of my trip.

‘You’ve not got an STI, mate,’ the brusque Australian doctor informed me. ‘You’ve got a case of Monster Thrush. Stop sitting around in damp swimmers.’

Whew – a relief! Canesten in hand, off I went, probably for a surf lesson. Except, it continued to be an issue in the generally humid and bikini-appropriate climes of South East Asia. And then, more annoyingly, in the not-at-all bikini appropriate climes of NW London, where I moved to begin a copywriter internship.

Consulting Doctor Google, I was advised to wear only cotton underwear. This worked, but as a 23-year-old in a fairly new relationship, was rather depressing. As a rule, cotton underwear isn’t very sexy. Was I doomed to the granny section of M&S forevermore?

Fortunately, aforementioned almost-boyfriend (by that point official boyfriend, now husband) found the solution. He had a job earning actual money, and so he solved my cotton-underwear-isn’t-sexy problems with a simple gift: five pairs of Calvin Klein briefs.

Sexy cotton

There’s literally no reason why these pants should be sexy. They are, literally, just bits of cotton with the words ‘Calvin Klein’ written on the band. But in the category of ‘cotton pants’, Calvin Klein have nailed sexy. They’ve nailed it so hard that an otherwise clueless 23-year-old Policy Adviser knew he could make his partner feel attractive, wearing those pants. He didn’t research; he didn’t Google it; he didn’t even consider other cotton-pant vendors. He had never previously been in-market for women’s underwear, insofar as I know.

But from day 1 of his search, he just knew what the right match was.

And that’s what Calvin Klein does so well in their ads. The magic of long term, consistent brand building. The second he was ready to make a purchase, Calvin Klein were front of mind for ‘sexy’ in the category of ‘cotton pants’. That’s not an accident – it’s the result of drumbeat advertising, year-in year-out, that makes you know it’s in their bones: when you’re wearing nothing but a pair of Calvins, you’re going to feel good about yourself.

Maybe not quite as good as Jeremy Allen White. But still, pretty fantastic.

Ten years on, I’m still wearing Calvin Klein pants. (Not the same pairs, I should add.) And I still feel that Calvin Klein are the go-to brand, because they’ve hit that note time and time again, in a range of visually stunning and memorable ways, since before I was old enough to remember.

It might not be a ‘big idea’, as per various grumpy CDs on LinkedIn. But it’s a great bit of brand building that results in sales. And with all due respect to the lofty-purpose-creative crowd, that’s what the game has to be about.

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