It's not often that a tire company burns a path across the Internet the way Pirelli did when it took the wraps off its 2016 calendar this week.
For those few who haven't heard about it since its launch in London on Monday, the Italian radial king—which makes news each year when it issues its glossy, collector calendars—has broken with half a century's worth of its own tradition: Instead of the usual fare of skinny, chesty, scantily clad models, the brand's 2016 calendar devotes its pages this year to "women of outstanding professional, social, cultural, sporting and artistic accomplishments."
That means goodbye to models like Natasha Poly, Isabeli Fontana, Kate Moss and Guinevere van Seenus; and hello to Yoko Ono, UN Refugee Agency goodwill ambassador Yao Chen, writer and social critic Fran Lebowitz, arts patron Agnes Gund, and veteran poet and rocker Patti Smith.
Amy Schumer and Serena Williams are among the younger women of achievement included in the calendar. Legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz shot these influential women in black and white and—mostly—with their clothes on.
"When Pirelli approached me, they said they wanted to make a departure from the past," Leibovitz said in a statement. "They suggested the idea of photographing distinguished women. After we agreed on that, the goal was to be very straightforward. I wanted the pictures to show the women exactly as they are, with no pretense."
And the calendar is exactly that—stark, startling and, even when nudity is involved (as it is with Williams and Schumer) the effect is more contemplative than suggestive.
If Pirelli's goal was to get attention, it surely succeeded: Many major news outlets pounced on the story, which lit up the Web for most of yesterday. But exactly what kind of attention it received—and how that attention may benefit the brand itself—is a more nuanced development. Reactions to the calendar ranged from praise (mostly) to dismay (a little), while some appear to have missed the point the brand was trying to make.
The prevailing response to the calendar was one of applause—specifically, kudos to Pirelli for spotlighting women who've accomplished great things in their career, rather than just having great bodies.
"Pirelli Calendar. Power, strong, smart, real women!!" vocalist Sam Smith tweeted, "I would kill for this in my home."
"Good-bye, naked supermodels on tire maker Pirelli's calendar," the Wall Street Journal's Tokyo-based auto reporter Yoko Kubota tweeted, "hello, fully-clad women with impressive resumes."
Over on Facebook, the positive response was much the same: "What a great project. And what an amazing calendar with all these real, strong and beautiful women," said one commenter. "Previous men who bought this before probably won't now because it shows women as people and not women as objects of desire," offered another.
Another said simply: "Fuck the outdated old calendar! Welcome to 2015! Great job Pirelli!!!!"
It bears remembering, of course, that Pirelli's calendar was always a marketing tactic for the brand. According to the company's release, the 20,000 calendars it produces annually go to "V.I.P.'s, musicians, politicians and royalty."
Meaning: The benefit to the brand arises from what the influencers say, and from the buzz overall. This year, there's buzz aplenty, and while it's anyone's guess whether it will lead to the sales of more tires, it seems likely to benefit Pirelli's image at least.
"It's a remarkable sign of the times that Pirelli is moving from showcasing skin to showcasing successful women," Katherine Wintsch, founder and CEO of marketing think tank The Mom Complex told Adweek. "They're giving both men and women role models to look up to, and I hope their brand is rewarded deeply for it."
Pirelli is actually just the latest in a long line of brands that have awakened to the popularity of showing not just women of substance, but women who actually look like the people you'd see on the street.
Last Spring, the crowdsourced clothing maker Betabrand, launched its spring collection modeled by Ph.D and doctoral candidates—a "ravishing roster" of grad students, the site said.
Earlier this year, Women's Running magazine put Erica Schenk, an 18-year-old, plus-size runner, on its cover. And since 2004, Dove's Self Esteem Project has sponsored educational outreach to young women with the stated goal of "ensur[ing] the next generation grows up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look."
Still, judging from some responses to the calendar, it's clear that while the portrayal of women in advertising has clearly evolved, Pirelli's message may be lost on a few members of the public. Facebook comments about the calendar (from men, it must be said) also included: "It sucks… Where's the calendar I always loved and bought?" And: "Definitely not what we would be expecting." And: "The only sexy woman is Serena Williams."
Indeed, much of the media coverage of the calendar's release seemed preoccupied by Schumer's having posed mostly nude and Williams topless (though with her back turned)—and most of the Tweets about the calendar focused almost exclusively on these two women, with few mentions of the others.
"DAMN," tweeted Elle magazine. "@amyschumer looks INCREDIBLE nude in the 2016 @Pirelli calendar." Time magazine tweeted: "Amy Schumer posed (nearly) nude in an empowering photo shoot." And CNN joined the pack with: "Get ready to see a lot more of Amy Schumer and Serena Williams."
For a calendar whose ostensible aim is to emphasize substance over skin, are these outlets missing the point?
No, says Alexandra Brodsky, editor at Feministing.com and a student at Yale Law School: "Part of what makes both Schumer and Williams such role models is that each displays a unique, powerful femininity that girls and women rarely get to see in the pages of magazines, showing that beauty isn't one size fits all," Brodsky told Adweek. "And I like that Pirelli recognizes that it's not simply swapping out sexiness for accomplishment. Accomplished women are sexy. With all that being said, I never let myself get too excited about feminism as marketing tactic. Selling isn't politics."
Still, in the wake of the calendar release, Pirelli does seem to have gained a halo to place atop its corporate head—at least for this year. "It looks like Pirelli is putting 'role' in front of the word 'model,' and I believe the world will benefit from it," Wintsch said. "My only hope is that the calendar is not treated as an exclusive, but made available to anyone and everyone."