Clothing kingpin Calvin Klein took a controversial walk on the wild side with his tawdry advertising campaign.

By Clarissa Cruz
Updated August 23, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
Advertisement

Slouching in a wood-paneled rec room, a sullen, bare-chested teenage boy in low-slung denim responds to questions posed by an unseen observer. ”You got a real nice look. How old are you?” a male voice coos off camera. The shaky camera work and harsh lighting underscore the visual’s amateurish and lurid quality. ”That’s a nice body,” continues the gravelly voice. ”You work out? I can tell.” It was a commercial for CK Calvin Klein Jeans, but the public reaction to the campaign — a series of similarly themed TV spots, as well as print ads and billboards — was anything but fashionable. Opponents compared the promos to everything from kiddie porn to adult-film tryouts. And on Aug. 28, 1995, mere weeks after they debuted, Klein bowed to popular demand and pulled the provocative ads.

”This campaign will, quite possibly, appeal to pedophiles,” Frank Russo of the American Family Association sputtered at the time. Added Adweek advertising critic Barbara Lippert: ”It’s one thing to show different combinations of adults doing different things to each other. When you’re eroticizing children, it’s a line you just can’t cross.”

Several TV stations refused to run the campaign, the New York City transportation authority had the images removed from buses, and protesters called for consumers to boycott stores that sold the jeans. Klein — already famous for a 1980 spot in which a then-15-year-old Brooke Shields purred that ”nothing” got between her and her Calvins — defended the campaign, claiming that the ”ads’ message about the spirit, independence, and inner worth of today’s young people has been misunderstood….” Detractors called it an overt publicity stunt.

Days after the campaign was shelved, the FBI investigated whether the ads constituted child pornography. The U.S. Justice Department eventually determined no laws had been violated. And any chilling effect on similarly eroticized marketing ploys didn’t last long. ”Certainly in terms of the provocative nature of advertising, there has been a lot out there since,” says Catholic League president William Donohue, who cites Abercrombie & Fitch’s racy catalogs — featuring topless women and men in homoerotic poses — as a case in point.

But as long as there is fashion, there will be ads that push the boundaries of taste. ”Given all of the childnappings and rapes, we should be more sensitized to it now,” says Adweek’s Lippert, ticking off a list of outrageous marketing trends — borderline porn and heroin chic, among them — already endured by the public. She sees no end to it: ”Advertisers will always have to find something new.”

Comments