Fitness club ad raises ire of Boston Catholics

BOSTON -- Even as the Church prepared to mark World Day for Consecrated Life, religious women in Boston say they felt mocked by a controversial advertisement in Boston Magazine.

Entitled “Figure drawing,” it depicts three heavily made-up young women dressed in traditional black and white habits sketching a nude male model in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David. In the background another young woman in a habit peers wide-eyed into the room from behind an iron door grate.

The ad, which ran as a two-page spread in the February edition of Boston Magazine, was created by the Minnesota advertising agency Fallon Worldwide to promote Equinox Fitness, a chain of fitness centers that has just opened a branch in Boston.

One of four ads in Equinox’s new “Happily Ever” campaign, the advertisement didn’t sit well with local women religious contacted by The Pilot.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Sister Rhonda, of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. “It’s such a shame that they feel they can just mock us like that.”

Sister Patricia Friel, of the Little Sisters of the Poor, declined to comment except to say, “It’s distasteful. Just very, very distasteful.”

“This ad is in such poor taste,” said Sister Marian Batho, CSJ, the delegate for religious for the Archdiocese of Boston. “It shows a terrible lack of understanding of religious life and what religious life is all about.”

“It is insulting to all women who have chosen this life,” she continued. “How we live and what we do is really the complete opposite of this ad.”

In a statement issued in response to the sharp criticism, Equinox Fitness defended its advertisement saying, “The ads capture the energy and artistry of the well-conditioned body in a thought provoking fashion, blending fantasy and impact.”

However, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization, disagreed.

“This patently stupid ad that Equinox is floating suggests that it must hype its edgy image in order to compete. That’s too bad -- apparently their targeted demographic group isn’t lured by the prospect of more barbells and fruit bars. Hence, the need to rip off Catholic imagery in a sophomoric soft-porn ad,” he said.

Donohue added, “Of course, Equinox could have asked Fallon to replace the nuns with Islamic women covered with veils. But that was probably too edgy, even for these trendy types. Guess there are some envelopes that no one wants to push these days. How telling.”

Global communications director for Fallon Worldwide Rosemary Abendroth defended the ad, noting that the controversial ad is only one in a series.

“The ‘Happily Ever’ campaign is based on the insight that there are deep and powerful motivations behind why people workout. The ads speak to an audience of highly driven people who strive to maximize their lives and achieve their goals both in and out of the gym,” she said.

Speaking by phone from her Minnesota office, Abendroth added, “We’re not saying they’re nuns. They are all models who are dressed in a certain way. It isn’t meant to be a religious commentary.”

Abendroth, who went on to refer to the women in the ad as “female models wearing black and white costumes,” added, “For those who jumped to the conclusion they were nuns, they should be corrected.”

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts called that claim, “ludicrous.”

“That statement is insulting the intelligence of Catholics. The models are obviously dressed to resemble Catholic nuns in traditional habits,” Doyle said.

He added that the ad agency’s “hollow” explanation is an, “indication that they are beginning to feel public pressure on this issue.”

Catholics are not alone in criticizing the advertisement. In a Jan. 12 blog post on, Advertising Age magazine columnist Bob Garfield panned the Equinox campaign calling it, “cheap posing as provocative, sophomoric posing as sophisticated, soft porn posing as self-actualization.”

Garfield noted that, for all their shock value, the ads are ineffective. “If you don’t know Equinox is a fitness center, you’d never, ever, ever, ever figure it out from these ads,” he wrote.

Garfield also observed that the ad shows that “nobody’s religion is too sacred to blaspheme.”