The most divisive ads and why fashion can’t resist controversy

FKA Twigs has defended her now-banned Calvin Klein ad (PA)

In the week that Calvin Klein went viral with its latest underwear ad, featuring Jeremy Allen White of The Bear, with a portion of his abs showing off, another of its campaigns made headlines for completely different reasons. The 2023 brand image of singer FKA Twigs wrapped in a denim shirt with her old slogan “Calvins or Nothing” has been banned in the UK.

A watchdog deemed Twigs’ ad “likely to offend” after two complaints. The ASA said the “composition of the image focused viewers’ attention on the model’s body rather than the clothing being advertised”, calling it “overly sexualised”. Twigs refutes the campaign’s negative labeling and has praised esteemed photographers Mert and Marcus for “I see a beautiful, strong woman of color whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine,” she wrote in a statement on Instagram, which shared next to the banned image. She added: “I won’t have my narrative.” change.”

No irony is lost in the fact that Allen White’s images continue to be the object of the Internet’s affection, called “a feast to share” by the New Yorker for fans of the on-screen cook and his iron claw-polished body. The images are a reminder that sex sells, as long as it is served in a way the Internet finds acceptable.

Perceived double standards aside, it’s no surprise that Calvin Klein ads have gone viral or been banned for their overtly sexy compositions. Pushing buttons by having her models undo them has been the backbone of the brand, for better or worse, since 1980. Brooke Shields, then just 15 years old, dropped the same refrain that appears in the Twigs ad for a commercial of CK jeans (“You want to know what’s coming between me and my Calvins? Nothing”), which led to two networks pulling them off the air in the United States.

Brooke Shields was only 15 years old when she appeared in the 1980 Calvin Klein advertisement (Calvin Klein)Brooke Shields was only 15 years old when she appeared in the 1980 Calvin Klein advertisement (Calvin Klein)

Brooke Shields was only 15 years old when she appeared in the 1980 Calvin Klein advertisement (Calvin Klein)

But of course, Calvin Klein and his team of photographers didn’t invent the provocative ad. Innuendo, erotica and blatant nudity have been used to sell luxury fashion and beauty products for decades. As Alice Farmiloe, luxury brand strategist, reminds us, “PT Barnum once said, ‘There is no such thing as bad advertising.’ Bold advertising is designed to spark debate. You should always try to push the boundaries of what is known.” considered ‘safe’ and ‘acceptable.'” However, she adds that, crucially, only: “Yeah it feels true to the brand’s agenda. “Brands that want to have a place in culture should share their point of view on the world.”

Holding a mirror up to a cultural moment, often through attitudes towards nudity and sexuality, is a strategy long employed by the world’s most renowned designers and photographers. Many of whom have become known as master provocateurs over the years. Yves Saint Laurent began a series of notable nude advertisements when he himself was captured by Jeanloup Sieff in 1971 (a decade in which the women’s Page 3 was inaugurated) for his eponymous Pour Home fragrance. It was later turned into a jeans advertisement.

Yves Saint Laurent posed naked to promote his eponymous brand (PA)Yves Saint Laurent posed naked to promote his eponymous brand (PA)

Yves Saint Laurent posed naked to promote his eponymous brand (PA)

So who could forget Wonderbra’s uplifting ‘Hello Boys’ ads from the ’90s featuring Eva Herzigova? They apparently caused a traffic backup and some say even crashes. Tom Ford has never been afraid to be subversive or simply sexual in his advertising; see her 2003 Gucci ad with Carine Roitfeld, which showed a kneeling model removing another’s underwear to reveal pubic hair in the shape of the brand’s iconic G. It was the era of the Brazilian and the heyday of Sex and the City.

Eva Herzigova would have caused traffic jams with her Wonderbra adEva Herzigova would have caused traffic jams with her Wonderbra ad

Eva Herzigova would have caused traffic jams with her Wonderbra ad

Unfortunately, some provocative ads speak to a darker narrative behind the scenes. By pushing the boundaries, there have been campaigns that have caused damage in the process. Kate Moss starred topless alongside Mark Wahlberg in a 1992 Calvin Klein advertisement, when she was 17 years old. She has since spoken on an episode of Desert Island Discs that she “doesn’t have very good memories” of the underwear campaign, which made her so anxious that she had to take Valium before it. Moss agreed with host Lauren Laverne that she felt objectified and said she was “vulnerable and scared.”

The 2000s caused a huge storm with the spread of nude fashion. When Sophie Dahl posed nude for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, she received almost 1,000 complaints from the ASA, with some calling it “degrading.” Although this didn’t stop the brand from creating a full-frontal campaign again two years later for its M7 men’s fragrance. In a decade when women’s bodies were under siege in the media, it’s no surprise that clothes were secondary to the highly sexualized bodies of mostly female models in some campaigns. Especially with now disgraced men like Dov Charney fronting the then very popular American Apparel and Terry Richardson photography campaigns for luxury fashion giants at the time (both deny sexual assault allegations against them). The fact that American Apparel sold spandex leggings, tights, and basic T-shirts probably went over many people’s heads, as it was the model’s akimbo poses that sparked conversation.

Sophie Dahl for Opium by Yves Saint Laurent (PA)Sophie Dahl for Opium by Yves Saint Laurent (PA)

Sophie Dahl for Opium by Yves Saint Laurent (PA)

Of course, it’s not just semi- or frontal nudity that has seen fashion brands come under fire for their marketing. Take Sisley’s ‘Fashion Junkie’ ad of two models craning their necks over a white dress, famous for being banned for reflecting the glamor of cocaine in the 1990s. While political issues, ranging from the death penalty to the treatment of AIDS victims in the 1990s, were conveyed in advertisements for the United Colors of Benetton brand, which became known for its ability to shock with billboards. in this age.

And fast forward to the 2010s, women’s bodies were the subject of a furor. in clothes this time, as models like Kiki Willems, then 18, were cast in Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent spring 2015 ads. In an apparent nod to Slimane’s rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, Willems’ tiny figure appeared slumped on the floor, her chest and ribs visible in her low-cut dress. Due to concerns about her body image, the advert was banned because the ASA deemed her “unhealthily thin”.

In the age of social media, brands are still willing to tread the line between virality and backlash. As fashion photographer Louis Bever posits, the lure of social media fame can only fuel the desire to generate controversy. “Brands like Benneton used ‘controversial’ images to provoke the audience and stand out compared to the competition. However, as the reaction received attention, it resulted in more sales. Brands still do this today for similar reasons. They want to stand out “And adding a provocative image or message behind it means it will spread like wildfire in the age of ‘going viral’ culture.”

Controversy is a powerful marketing tool. People criticize the FKA Twigs ad for not having a “story,” but not all advertising needs to have one.

It might seem surprising that risqué ads have endured even in the era of cancel culture, although not a season goes by without the site Diet Prada, which has become the unofficial watchdog of the fashion world, running a campaign reckless or downright tone-deaf constructed to attract attention. Few have matched the scandal and disgust caused by Balenciaga’s so-called “bondage bear” campaign featuring two young girls from late 2022. The appeal of provocation endures for the same reason as always: to make people feel something. “Many “Studies have shown that creating an emotional response in an audience is the best way to generate prominence and be remembered,” says Farmiloe. “Controversy is a powerful marketing tool. People criticize the FKA Twigs ad for not having a ‘story,’ but I don’t think all advertising should have one.”

What content has the power to provoke people may change as quickly as the latest TikTok craze, but as long as they have the means, brands won’t stop searching for the sweet spot of shock and awe. And as Twigs has shown, even after they’re banned, in the age of the Internet, ads will live on.

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