Calvin Klein makes ‘offensive’ ads pay

The designer has pulled its controversial ads, but not before earning worldwide publicity, reports Jon Rees

Calvin Klein has joined the canon of advertisers accused of flouting moral codes. Its entry in the misdemeanours dictionary will be filed under “P” for pornography somewhere between “A” for Aids (Benetton) and “T” for transvestism (Levi’s).

But now that the fashion designer has bowed to pressure and withdrawn its controversial jeans advertising campaign – amid accusations that it was peddling child pornography – some commentators say the company should have stuck to its guns.

The TV and press campaign was produced by the company’s in-house advertising unit, CRK Advertising, and featured pubescent-looking models in various states of undress. All were almost wearing something from the CK denim range.

There are two striking things about the poster campaign: one is the youth of the models – though supermodel Kate Moss’s career, in particular with Calvin Klein perfume brand Obsession, has blunted that impact. The other is the washed-out, listless, joyless poses in which they are presented. This, combined with the tawdry backroom settings, speaks irresistibly of child pornography, claim groups as diverse as the American Family Association and The Guardian newspaper.

The TV ads provoke a stronger reaction: same models, same setting but this time with the addition of an off-camera contribution from the “director”. He says, “Nice body, do you work out?” and similar comments to the young male and female models as they take off various articles of Calvin Klein clothing. The scene is suffused with awkwardness and embarrassment and the overall impression is of exploitation, not fashion.

Following a furore on both sides of the Atlantic – the campaign didn’t even break in the UK although it was scheduled to air across Europe on MTV – the company took a full page ad in The New York Times withdrawing the campaign, which it claims has been misunderstood.

In a separate statement, it said: “The whole point of this campaign is that people, regular people from anywhere…have glamour inside of them which is tied to their independence.”

The American Family Association is still trying to force the US attorney general to launch a federal child pornography investigation into Calvin Klein on the grounds that the ads “sexually exploit what appear to be children by exhibiting them in a lascivious manner”.

Tony Kaye, who directed the shelved Guinness ad featuring a gay couple, says the withdrawal of the Calvin Klein campaign was a triumph only for hypocrisy.

“It’s totally fresh and represents kids in the way they are. The only people that are objecting to it are old and out of touch. I think that’s a sad indication of how the world is, that people can look at it and see filth,” he says.

Certainly those who have seen only the posters tend to be less concerned than those who have seen the full campaign.

Mark Blenkinsop, marketing manager for Europe at jeans company Pepe, which itself ran a controversial campaign based on teenage angst and suicide earlier this year, saw little to cause offence in the poster work.

“The style of the pictures was a little close to the bone but it did not offend me. If the setting had been a little more glamorous, I don’t think there would have been any problem. It looks to me like the ads draw on the work of underground photographers from the Sixties,” he says.

Stockist Harrods also failed to be outraged by the poster work. “I think it was unnecessary to withdraw them,” says a spokesman.

Critics of Calvin Klein say that despite the withdrawal, the campaign had more than done its job. It resulted in the company’s name and product being splashed across the world’s leading newspapers and magazines as well as hitting the screens of some of the highest-rated TV shows.

Ads for other jeans brands have come close to the edge, but according to one agency source who works on a “youth” brand, this one steps firmly over the line.

“The Versace jeans ad features two supermodels in white high heels, jeans and no tops and no one says a word. The defining thing about the CK ads is the age of the models.”

The other jeans ad best-known for it obvious use of controversial sexual imagery is Levi’s “taxi” ad, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty. This features a cab driver lasciviously eyeing a girl in the rear view mirror and then being disconcerted when “she” turns out to be a “he”.

One agency source says: “The difference was that the character in the Levi’s ad triumphed over the taxi driver. He was also evidently an adult. And transvestism has a long history of acceptable humour surrounding it. In comparison, the ‘feel’ of the CK campaign was dirty, grimy, trashy – and humourless.”

Whatever Calvin Klein’s intentions for the campaign, the ads have been consigned to the dustbin, attracting reams of publicity in the process. Many suspect that is what they were designed to do in the first place.

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