He's a latter-day Mentos Kid, this year's "whassup guy," the Dell Dude's natural successor.
With little more than a goofy smile and an even goofier dance, underwear model Vaughn Lowery has rocketed into the pantheon of ephemeral American advertising pitchmen. In a series of 30-second commercials for Kmart's Joe Boxer line of undies, sheets and whatnot, Lowery doesn't sing or have a catchphrase or even speak. Instead, stripped to his skivvies, his shaved head gleaming, he hangs a delighted, unself-conscious expression on his face and dances to some up-tempo, "Austin Powers"-ish lounge music.
And what a dance: Hip shake, wiggle, hip shake, wiggle, arm swing, run in place, hoplikeabunny, run in place, hoplikeabunny, lumberjack chop, lumberjack chop, jump! Everybody now . . .
It's silly. It's uninhibited. It's even winning and infectious, judging by the thousands of fan letters Lowery has received to date.
It's also generated some heated debate.
To some, the image of an African American man dancing giddily in his underwear connects with some painful historic imagery. "It's a loaded image," says William Jelani Cobb, an assistant professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta. Cobb sees in Lowery's antics the long-discarded face of black subservience and smiling compliance -- the minstrel, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. "To depict a black man this way," he says, "it's just coonery."
Mark Anthony Neal, an author and critic of African American culture, invokes another onerous icon: "I suppose it was intended to be good-natured and good-hearted, but there are elements of Sambo-ism in it."
Kmart, which sells Joe Boxer goods under an exclusive license, never counted on such a reaction when it launched Lowery's first commercial last summer. In fact, the whole campaign was something of a fluke. Lowery, 28, auditioned twice for a spot that was supposed to feature several speaking roles. On his third try, the actor and model decided to cut through the clutter. He chucked the script -- and his pants -- and went into his dance. "It was magic," says Colette Landi Sipperly, Joe Boxer's spokeswoman. "He didn't need to say a word. It came across right away."
Said Lowery, "I was just showing how loose I could be." To ensure that things didn't get too loose, he wore an athletic supporter and two pair of Joe Boxers during the filming of the first ad last summer.
Since then, there have been two more "Boxer Boogie" commercials, both featuring Lowery and both set to the same peppy tune, Italian composer Nicola Conte's "Jet Sounds." In one Christmas-themed commercial, Lowery danced his way out of a skimpy silver gift box fixed to his waist, revealing an even skimpier pair of red shorts trimmed in fake fur (perhaps adding another layer of meaning to the usual holiday understanding of "package").
As for happy returns, Kmart says it has moved more than $200 million of Joe Boxer merchandise since Lowery arrived. That's twice Joe Boxer's best annual sales. The company has also collected plenty of free publicity from Lowery's appearances on the "Today" show, "The Tonight Show," and others. This week the chain will introduce an interactive game on the Internet in which players can manipulate Lowery's dance moves. Another TV commercial is tentatively set for Valentine's Day.
In all, it's been a mostly happy story for a chain that could use a bit of cheer, given that it filed for bankruptcy protection last January and that its main moneymaker, Martha Stewart, has been under a PR cloud since suspicions of insider stock trading arose. (Just yesterday, Kmart announced it would cut up to 37,000 jobs and close more than 300 stores.)
For Lowery, a Detroit native who now lives in Los Angeles, sudden celebrity has been a bit disorienting but largely welcome. "It's been a lot of fun," he says. "It's what I always wanted to be -- an entertainer," although he stopped along the way to earn a degree in labor relations from Cornell University.
Lowery has heard the knocks on the commercials, but suggests such criticism comes from people who "are taking it all way too seriously. It was a job. I'm an actor who did his job." It's important, he says, to remember that Kmart's ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, "never asked to see an African American guy dance; they asked for funky, cool, down-to-earth ethnic types to be in a commercial. . . . Some people don't see the individual. Isn't it kind of interesting that the individual in this case happens to be an Ivy League graduate?"
Yet some viewers say the race of the actor is part of the reason for the commercial's power. "On one level, I can't even imagine that this commercial would be made with a white guy dancing," wrote one anonymous critic at Negroplease.com, one of many Internet sites on which the ad has been debated. "And on another level, if it was made with a white guy dancing, I don't think anybody would even bat an eyelash. There is something about it being a black man doing the shucking and jiving that makes it click. And I think that's what's making [me] uncomfortable."
This is a point that resonates with Neal, an English professor at SUNY-Albany and the author of "Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic." "If we lived in a colorblind society, we wouldn't react the same way to it," he says. "Taken as what it is, it's humorous. He looks like he's happy that his underwear fits! But there's a visceral core to this that you can't escape."
Cobb, the Spelman professor, says the reaction to the ad may be stronger among older African Americans, who remember segregation and the images of black subjugation that accompanied and preceded it. Young people, he says, aren't necessarily aware of the past, or as emotionally connected to it.
Kmart spokesman Dave Karraker says most of the reaction to the commercials has been positive, though some have told the company the campaign is "degrading" to African Americans. While the company is "sensitive" to the criticism, he says, "the plan is to continue the campaign."