Sex, lies, and handlebar tape

That’s the name of a biography about Jacques Anquetil. It’s also a fitting title for the thread that went sideways on my personal Facegag page when I posted this photo and this comment:

Another example of how Specialized doesn’t get it. Women are cyclists and customers, not sex objects. Of course tucked away at a trade show in Berlin, maybe Specialized thought they could do their thing under the radar. Talk about a company that represents the worst in cycling. I guess if you can’t sell your bikes because they’re good, rip a page from Budweiser and sell it because you think your customers might be dumb enough to think that buying one will get you laid. By a Playboy Bunny. Right.

What I thought was a goodnight kiss to my echo chamber turned out to be anything but. One poster defended the two models by saying that it was the German subsidiary who made the decision, implying that Specialized’s HQ in the liberal, equal-rights supporting Republic of NorCal would never have done such a thing. The same person also pooh-poohed the problem by saying that other companies in the same situation have done worse, then threw down the old Litmus Test for Social Commentary: If you’ve ever [—–] before, you have no right to comment on [—–].

His defensive reaction was not out of place. One person happily commented on how he loves “tits,” another about how he loves gazing at attractive women, one about “Uptight Yanks” (he’s an American), and the old standby whenever we’re criticizing Specialized, “Cannondale does it, too.”

The women who joined the conversation mostly had in depth, thoughtful, and strong opinions on the matter, like this one, but who cares about them? I got some mansplainin’ to do, so STFU.

And my mansplanation begins with this: I’ve done and said sexist things before, I’ve purchased products from sexist companies with sexist marketing campaigns, and if I had to make a list of times that my dick has overridden my brain it would be a very long one. So you can call me a failed feminist or a hypocrite or a bored late-night blogger or whatever else makes it easy for you to discount my criticism of Specialized. But even though (you think) that chops off my credibility at the knees when it comes to making this argument, it doesn’t take away the argument itself, which is this:

Whether it’s Peter Sagan groping the woman on the podium, whether it’s the practice of having women on the podium, whether it’s unequal prize lists, whether it’s events of unequal duration, whether it’s advertising that shows sexy women on bikes who are obviously not bike racers versus men on bikes who obviously are, whether it’s Specialized’s sexist product marketing and sales, whether it’s unequal team sponsorship, whether it’s unequal junior rider development, and whether it’s unequal support at the local, state, and national level, cycling is doing a poor job of providing equal opportunity and equal respect for women.

I’ve had people tell me that women only race bikes because they’re “looking for a guy.” I’ve been criticized for offering equal prize money when I’ve put up cash primes because “women’s fields are smaller.” I’ve seen guys on group rides aggressively push women who “dared” to contest the sprunt. And I’ve heard every possible criticism of women as participants, from casual riding to big-day racing.

With an environment this gnarly, it’s unfair to pretend that Specialized’s sexism stands out. If anything, their sexism is pretty ordinary. If you want to find a company that really doubles down on sexist marketing and the objectification of women you need to look at the company founded by Anthony Sinyard, the son of Mike Sinyard, who is the founder and owner of Specialized.

Anthony, in his 30’s and not what we’d call a super successful dude, has invested in a venture called Supacaz. Supacaz makes handlebar tape, and has taken Specialized’s sex-symbol sales approach and doubled down, then tripled down.

Check this promotional video.

Then check this link for Google images associated with ol’ Supacaz.

The apple didn’t simply fail to fall far from the tree, it never even hit the ground.

Of course none of this is really surprising, as noted by another poster on my thread, a woman who wasn’t shy about slapping down the justifications offered up for Specialized’s playboy bunnies as a “mistake of the German subsidiary.”

Studies have shown that sex doesn’t sell. Many, many, many studies. What selling sex does, however, is allow the dumbasses in marketing to go home at 5pm and stop thinking about how to market a shitty product with very little appeal. And THAT is why people use sex to sell. They use sex to sell objects because they’re lazy motherfuckers with no big-picture thought patterns, no understanding of sport sustainability and zero respect for the gender they’re so apathetically objectifying and dehumanizing. Marketing departments use sex to sell stuff because they have little respect for themselves and absolutely no respect for their audience; there is no art, no creativity, no meaningful engagement. And why should there be? When so much of their audience stands up and defends such useless existence, that means that Specialized (and Maxxis and 661 and Colnago and Sidi) don’t have to. They have mindless consumer drones who will do the PR for them.

Of course, when you get right down to it, I blame Lance. Because at the very moment in time that Amgen is offering better and longer women’s events, at the very time that European classics are offering more comparable women’s races with rumblings of equal prize money, at the very time that women are becoming a bigger and bigger part of cycling and its fastest growing segment, Ol’ Yeller teams up with a sexist blowhard gambler to time-trial from Vegas to Hollywood. That what cycling’s biggest story is for the non-cycling public.

Specialized, it looks like you’re going to have to up your game, by which I don’t mean succumb to more of the sex-sells-bikes myth. People who own Specialized bikes, and companies who compete against them, recognize that Specialized makes good bikes. It beggars belief that anyone who’s making a purchasing decision says to herself, “Hmmmm, Tarmac or EVO Super Six? I guess I’ll go with the Tarmac because, bunnies.”

Nor do I believe that Specialized’s focus groups show a customer base longing for “more images of scantily clad women to go with my bike.” What they want on the road is a better product, and if they also want something better in bed, well, they’re not going to get it from a full carbon frame, even if it’s 100% full carbon.



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34 thoughts on “Sex, lies, and handlebar tape”

  1. Can you imagine the scene in the marketing/sales meeting?

    “So, in Germany we’re gunna sell electric bikes with Playboy bunnies.”

    Were they drunk, stoned or both? Horseshit either way.

    1. Sr.Mkting. Dude: “Let’s do a booth with a really cool Plexiglas exhibit that shows the inner workings of bike’s motor.”

      Anthony Sinyard (looks up from iPhone, pants): “Let’s get some hot chicks in bunny outfits.”

      Sr. Mkting. Dude: “Um great idea, Anthony. Let’s, ah, go with that, guys.”

  2. Wish I had time to comment more fully, because this is an important topic and I strongly agree with and support your thesis, but I do have the time to say thank you for an excellent and thought provoking post.

  3. Personally, I enjoy a bike riding wanker more than a socially active wanker. One makes me feel special. The other, like a piece of meat.

    1. Will get back to my core business of bike wankage, sir. But first this important social message on the Internet that will likely change the strongly held opinions of millions and lead to a better planet.

      1. PS Did enjoy the bunny pic though. Had not seen it. Thanks for sharing. Kinda feel like buying some bike stuff now. Maybe you’re right and that social activism can have an impact. 🙂

      1. Follow your Sun Tsu. Never underestimate your adversary. Can’t argue with much of this post but you’re wrong about one thing: advertisers are not stupid, just trying to leave the office by 5. They are brilliant, calculated, and ruthless.

        The game is chess. The moment you let anybody convince you it’s checkers, it’s game-set-match.

        But also, I like how you worked “my dick” and “it would be a very long one” into the same sentence.

  4. I just glanced at the Supercaz link you posted. I’m not going to jump into good/bad/otherwise debate but I’d wager the Special(iz)Ed crew is following the SURFER ragazine playbook. Like it or not that shit sells. It’s thicker than Cosmo and chocked with the puppy fodder that 15 year old boys lap up. Now look at how the surf market has exploded, saturated and re-exploded even bigger. Lowest common denominators is good business if making quick money is the goal. Sad but its just how it seems to be.
    My 2 cents :-/ (Disclaimer this was written by one who believes “Idiocracy” is a documentary)

    1. It’s true that sex is appended to things that sell. But it’s not clear that the sex is what sells them. I agree that we eat what the media feeds us, though.

      1. The comment above lost me at “Special(iz)Ed.” Is that supposed to reference Special Education? Is that the connection being made here? How are people with special needs supposed to feel if we’re still using the “that’s so retarded” routine in our arguments? It’s amazing how careless we can be, marginalizing one group of people while attempting to avoiding marginalizing another.

    2. I’m not denying the size of the surf business. But, cycling mostly isn’t marketed like surfing.

      There are some bike-related businesses marketing cycling as a lifestyle, but not many. The ones that do lifestyle marketing aren’t touching the competitive part of the sport because it’s irradiated like the Fukushima meltdown.

  5. Michelle Landes

    You had
    Me at Manspaning😂 Love my S-works Tarmac bought it because I liked the way it felt when I rode it😉

  6. If you haven’t been put off by Specialized business practices, you haven’t been around the industry for very long. The bike industry is brutal, no two ways about it. Lots of good people in the business, Sinyard is not one of them.

    This is an easy issue. If one disagrees with the practice then don’t buy from a Specialized shop. I haven’t for over a decade. This issue shows nothing has changed at Sinyard’s business.

    As for elite Women’s racing, most still pay to ride at that level. HC races are still cancelled weeks before they are supposed to be run. UCI is still uninterested in improving the elite Women’s side of the sport. I hope the prize parity comes soon at the elite level. I’m glad to see some parity at the local level.

    1. “Most still pay to ride at that level.” This is astonishing and true; same for lots of men in Europe.

  7. I read a few comments on the article you linked and they’re saying it’s a German thing in that they tolerate this kind of promotion whereas in Great Britain it’s not tolerated. I’m guessing this is a GB site because they use words as naff.
    A few months back I read a similar story only it was a Maxxis GB subsidiary “gone rouge” and printed a scantily clad women calendar. And someone in Canada said something like: I guess they tolerate that kind of stuff there, eh?

    1. The problem is that when people say “It’s a German thing” or “It’s a Euro thing” that they have no ability to speak for “The Germans.” What they can say is that “lots of other German companies market like this,” but that doesn’t resolve the underlying question, which is this:

      Does sex-infused advertising objectify women? If it does it’s probably inappropriate in almost every context. Just because some Germans (or all of them) approve of objectification doesn’t make it right. Germans have in the past shown broad support for other things that the rest of society pretty much frowned on.

      And of course toleration shouldn’t be confused with whether a thing is right or fair or just or good. Jim Crow was tolerated for generations in the South, as an example.

      Finally, as a worldwide brand, Specialized should have a consistent message regarding women: They are professional athletes, hobbyists, enthusiasts, and customers whose interest in cycling is tied to things other than their physical attributes as sexual partners.

      That’s starting to sound like the rough draft of a term paper in Queer Studies … so I’ve got that going for me.

  8. Hell of the South

    I smell a cease and desist letter coming from all the 18-24 yr old dudes lapping up the marketing hype…

  9. Sex sells. It sells everything. It’s just the way it is. There are industries built around it. Anyone that goes to a car show will tell you it’s all over the place and accepted.

    Female athletes participate in the “sex sells” game all the time. How many naked pro cyclists do you see advertising product or in self promotion?

    Specialized Germany put a couple models in front of a Playboy Edition bike. I would kind of expect that at a show, with a Playboy Edition anything, you would have a model or two there to attract attention.

    You think people won’t buy or consider a product with a female model next to it?
    Happens all the time.
    People will buy based on illogical reasoning all the time. They are selling the dream.

    Sex sells. All kinds of sex. Doesn’t have to be girls, or the fountain of youth. Sometimes a hot model is both to some buyers.

    All that matters is what that model represents. That’s the advertising world and as any click bait ad, magazine cover, car show, boat show, trade show, product ad, clothing ad, footwear, hats, and food will attest: sex sells.

    Does sexually focused marketing fit with tech heavy products like high end bicycles? I don’t think so. Obviously, Specialized thinks the Rolex crowd with Playboy on their coffee tables see bikes as nice decor for their post-modern, all glass homes. Stupid but whatever…

    Where marketing is falling short, however, is with the female buyer.
    In the bicycle world, there is a huge untapped market.
    The assumption that you only need to appeal to MAMILs is missing out on literally millions upon millions of dollars in revenue.

    They are slowly catching up and in five years, I bet they will be advertising a Venge with a ballsack on the top tube.

    I’m not hung up on the marketing. Models gotta eat too.

  10. Well, i’m not smart enough to argue with PhD’s and Olgilvy, so I defer to their expertise on the matter.
    I still await the Specialized Venge Ballsack edition…

  11. “if I had to make a list of times that my dick has overridden my brain it would be a very long one.”

    So, the LIST would be long, or …?

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