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August 6, 2008 11:47 AM

Media, Retail

Sex Sells, Then and Now

One of the controversial ads from 1995. It was almost like déjà vu. Calvin Klein had gotten itself into trouble again with its new steamy TV ads featuring Eva Mendes for its latest fragrance, Secret Obsession. The current brouhaha...


One of the controversial ads from 1995.
It was almost like déjà vu.

Calvin Klein had gotten itself into trouble again with its new steamy TV ads featuring Eva Mendes for its latest fragrance, Secret Obsession. The current brouhaha is that the American networks refused to accept the ads because they're too revealing in the bust area.

Personally, it was great to see Calvin pushing the envelope again because it reminded me of the good old days when a big Calvin Klein advertising controversy became page one news.

I covered the media and advertising beat for WWD in the Nineties, and hardly a season would go by where there wasn't a huge flap over Klein's latest campaign. When Klein's people would call to talk about the new ads, I knew there'd be a lot more to it than just looking at pretty pictures.

I'll  never forget in 1995 when they sent over the CK Jeans ads with teenagers striking suggestive poses in a fake wood-paneled basement, and the accompanying TV commercial with an older guy asking provocative questions to these teens. The effect resembled an audition for a low-budget porn movie. Those ads caused a firestorm, and were rejected by the networks and investigated by the Justice Department on whether they could be considered child pornography. But the upshot was that it created a frenzy at retail. I recall Kal Ruttenstein, the late senior vice president, fashion direction at Bloomingdale's, telling me that after Klein pulled the ad campaign, the New York flagship sold out of 95 percent of its CK Jeans shipment.

The underwear campaigns had the same effect.  What was always an eye-opening exercise was when I called ad professionals to get comments on Klein's ads -- whether they viewed them as controversial, shocking or simply a publicity stunt.

I remember Sam Shahid, who used to run Klein's in-house ad agency, commenting on some controversial underwear ads that were created after he was no longer in charge. One 1995 ad, in particular, caused a firestorm with Klein's Underwear license owner, Linda Wachner, then chairman of Warnaco. She was adamant in having the underwear ads in question pulled after they appeared, unbeknownst to her, in Playboy and Esquire. The ads showed a hunky 20-year-old Joel West sitting spread eagle in his Calvin Klein skivvies. Shahid at the time remarked, "It's sexy, it's straightforward and it's out there. Calvin will get attacked no matter what he does right now. The model has a great body and it's hot and it's about underwear. Calvin built the whole thing on this. That's why guys will wear it. They feel sexy and great. You go to the gym and every guy has it on."

Was it any wonder that Klein's jeans business and underwear business were huge successes in the Nineties? These envelope-pushing campaigns helped Klein become a household name, and sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of merchandise. Although Klein was designing a beautiful (noncontroversial) designer collection, he became world renowned for his jeans, underwear and fragrances -- in which provocative, often incredibly sexy advertising, played a huge role.

"If I were a cynic, I'd say, 'Calvin got more than his share of publicity before, and he's attempting to get even more of his share of publicity this time,'" adman David Altschiller once told me after the shocking underwear ads appeared right after the "porn" accusations. Altschiller personally thought the underwear ads were a total turnoff, but conceded, "Being outrageous and anti-establishment makes him sexy, hip and an icon to young people. He [Calvin] says, 'I'll show blue-haired ladies what I think of this outrage.' The irony, of course, is he'll sell underwear."

And he did. Tons of it.
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