Fashion Advertising: Controversy — Where Has It Gone?

After shifts from the shocking and suggestive to the socially conscious and aspirational, the fashion industry has entered a new state of advertising: tame.

with contributions from Cynthia Martens, Lauren McCarthy
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Asked whether he feels fashion advertising is as provocative as it had been, Sam Shahid, president and creative director of Shahid & Co., answered emphatically: “No way.”

Reflecting on his earlier work for companies such as Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, he said the campaigns had ideas, there were stories, and they were conceptual, sexual and sensual. “Everybody is being more conservative today, and they’re more product-driven. They’re not as conceptual as they used to be. The digital world has changed the imagery. Everything looks plastic and very computerized. It could be the designers themselves,” he said.

Asked if his current clients such as Abercrombie & Fitch are requesting provocative imagery, he said, “Absolutely not. Everything is much more conservative. That’s the thinking going on right now. In general, he noted, “If you look at all the ads, they all look exactly alike. There’s nothing sensual or sexual about it. Everybody is very plastic. Maybe Tom Ford is the only one that’s out there pushing the buttons quite a bit. He’s also representing himself, which is wonderful. [In other cases,] management has taken over and maybe the creativity is not coming from the designers so much,” said Shahid. “Calvin had a point of view, Ralph Lauren did, too, which was very much a lifestyle.”

If Shahid were to describe the period the industry is in right now, it’s “very quiet.”

“It’s not as liberating as it was. Maybe we’re not feeling that right now. Everybody’s a little nervous for some reason,” said Shahid.

He also believes that people have become so jaded and have seen just about everything. “What more can you show, and what more can you do? Nothing’s shocking anymore. I’m trying to think what’s left for us to conquer in that area of surprise and shock. If you want pornography it’s all there for you on the Web, if you want naked people, that’s on the Web. What is left to surprise?

“I don’t know if people are being true to how they’re feeling right now,” he continued. He said in the old days, Calvin Klein and Versace were passionate about their ads. “They loved sex and they loved beauty. Marc Jacobs is tame to what he was,” said Shahid.

A de-emphasis on print appears to be a key factor.

“It could be because print is not what it was. It used to be you could tell a story in print. Now it’s all on the Web site. It’s films and showing product. The sensual part of it isn’t there. It’s not the same as print. You put it on the Web site, and it lasts for a fraction of a second. It’s all so product-driven right now,” he said. “Advertising was as entertaining as a film and a book. You don’t have that anymore,” he said.

Shahid recalled the days when copy was powerful and memorable, such as Clairol’s tag line: “Does She or Doesn’t She?” “It never left you. That was the power of print. Print is not number one anymore. When you talk to digital guys, it’s all about hits. That’s all they talk about. ‘We got three million hits.’ I say to them, ‘Did you get three million hits at the cash register?’

“To be honest with you, I think, visually, we’re all a little confused. What is the right medium now? How do we get people’s attention? The videos of Abercrombie and American Eagle, they all look alike. Big smiles, and looking happy. It’s harder to make an impact and impress somebody. With magazines, you hold that print in your hands. It stays with you for a long time. You don’t forget it with print. With the written word, it’s powerful. Now you look at it on your screen, in a fraction of a second, it’s gone,” he said.

Now, Shahid estimated, when clients are divvying up their budgets, print gets 20 percent, Web sites get 50 percent, TV gets 20 percent and collateral material and outdoor gets 10 percent. “They spread themselves out,” Shahid noted, pointing out that while kids walk around with their iPhone, “the visual is so small, it doesn’t leave an impact. It’s small-screen.”

Peter Arnell, who is known for his groundbreaking work for such clients as Donna Karan, Chanel, Banana Republic and Hanes, lamented the repetitiveness in advertising now.

“Because of an enormous amount of shifts in creating visuals and capturing imagery, I think that things have tended to flatten out to a point where everything seems to be the same. I think people use ads and photography today, especially in fashion, with the exception of a few, to not induce, provoke or create curiosity or to provide a perspective or point of view on something, but rather to present a product.”

He said the difference between presenting a product and presenting an idea “is like night and day.”

“It’s all of a sudden become a commodity in a funny way. It’s a portrait or a close-up or a frozen moment in the studio. I think location stuff has been reduced because of budgets and studio becomes important. Everyone’s using digital cameras and they want this instant look and feel. There’s always been historically a battle between the designer wanting to show the product and the advertising people wanting to create imagery that stimulates and creates fantasy. Instead of people utilizing their brand opportunities and communication to express values or shock or differentiation, people seem to want to promote sameness, but not enabling creative people, creative directors, art directors, photographers to be the complement and the support in order to take a company’s image somewhere.

“Provocative doesn’t mean someone without clothes to me,” Arnell continued. “Provocative means questioning the norm and going against the grain with a sincere authentic approach which is a mirroring of the company’s culture,” he said.

Some products everybody gets, like Manolo Blahnik shoes and Tom Ford, Arnell noted. “If you never saw another Tom Ford ad, everyone would be clear on what his perspective is,” he said.

“I think that the entire industry needs to make itself important again in communications. You know that fashion communications became something that also leaked into every other field, it needs to reinvent itself as far as its responsibility or role in communication again,” said Arnell.

“Fashion is all about style, creativity, all about dreaming, all about fantasy.…You see a fashion ad, you look at it and say, ‘Is this me? Could this be me? Was this me?’ or ‘What are they trying to say to me?’ It’s a dialogue. And now ads have ended up preaching to people instead of creating a dialogue. In the old days, people anticipated the next great creative of Calvin Klein.

“We find ourselves in a place where somebody needs to give a swift kick in the butt to everybody. With all that money, all that beauty and all that energy, people look to the master, Ralph Lauren. In my opinion, his ads have always been provocative. He hits all the cues. He makes sure you know it’s Purple Label. He can deeply provide you the Ivy League degree you never had. The Gatsby success you always desire. Success is something that comes along with a purchase with Ralph Lauren,” said Arnell.

“When you look at Calvin, everybody looks like they’re on the prowl. There are a lot of companies that have it, and some don’t. Tommy Hilfiger has kept it going. He knows who he is and he knows what the market is and he’s kept it going.”

Arnell emphasized that great advertising has always narrated a story.

“It’s not about the product, it’s about the spirit, and the attitude, and the communications of the mission. It’s Kenny Cole at its best. It’s Benetton. The people who run these marketing groups have to encourage the communication. They have to narrate the story. They just can’t depict, they have to narrate. They have to be true. When a truth is found in an image, it lasts forever. Why do these great images stick in our minds forever? It’s not a season-by-season. Why? They stick in our minds forever because they’re timeless. Timeless pictures come from a platform of truth which is universal and forever. That’s what’s provocative. When people communicate what the soul of their brand is,” he said.

Arnell feels that people who live in a world with Instagram, Facebook, iPhones and Galaxys love communicating visually. People are spending 24/7 photographing images. “The competition is now the consumer, it’s not any longer the agency or the other brands. It’s the world at large looking to make great imagery. Everything is predictive. Everything is prescriptive. Everything is living as expected, instead of shocking toward the unexpected. There’s no shock anymore. I think people should view their ads as entertainment, not as business. People want to be entertained with advertising. What better an industry than fashion, which spends its entire life dressing up the world.”

Kirshenbaum, who’s now ceo of Nue Studio Group, believes controversial things are still happening, but the entire conversation has changed. He observed three things going on in the fashion world: “There are controversial brands that are more open to controversy, there are controversial things the brands do in terms of their platforms, and then there are controversial people behind the brands, people who are creative.

“I think the truth is, it’s not that controversial things aren’t happening. I believe the conversation is happening in different places. It may be happening in social media or an event, or in the news media,” said Kirshenbaum.

He pointed out that as media have become completely fractionalized, the conversation has become fractionalized as well through advertising, social media or blogging. Kirshenbaum noted there are brands that are edgier and living in an edgier world such as Dolce & Gabbana, American Apparel and Tom Ford. “Their imagery is sexier and more provocative. It’s not that people aren’t doing it. But I do think there’s a level of immunity to a certain extent. I don’t think the Millennial generation is easily shocked at this point. A lot of Millennials in my office don’t seem very shockable. The imagery is so much more forward,” he said.

Charles DeCaro, partner in Laspata DeCaro, which created the controversial Kenar ads using supermodels such as Linda Evangelista, Helena Christensen and Naomi Campbell, said it’s a different world today. “The nature of social media and reality TV, these escapades that happen are in your face 24/7. I think we’re so used to everything at this point. Nothing is quite shocking. Truth is stranger than fiction. You see these TV reality shows, teen pregnancies and bad comics and really talentless people. Everyone seems riveted to that. I am not one of these people.”

And DeCaro observed that clients aren’t looking to rock the boat.

“The nature of advertising today is a play-it-safe thing. Before you were given much more creative latitude. There were not boards to answer to,” he said. “You basically had a one-on-one relationship with the president of the company and you would impart your creative vision. Now it’s a different thing because you’re beholden to a corporation,” said DeCaro.

He believes electronic, digital and social media have changed everything, and the whole conversation has changed. “Whatever we had done in the past, we had never done ads simply to provoke. There was always a narrative behind it, and a reason behind it,” said DeCaro.

He cited Lauren as someone who will always be beholden to his brand. “Whenever you turn that page, you know it’s a Ralph Lauren ad. With others, there’s no continuity because it changes so frequently,” he said.

“Think of the world we live in. You turn on the TV and there are mass murderers killing people in high schools. [In the Nineties] it was a much more innocent period. We were able to try things and if they provoked thought, great, if they didn’t, fine. Now it just seems like a bunch of pictures,” he said.

He said people still want to know the backstory behind an ad campaign and about the talent involved. “It’s multilayered now. We do videos for every client we have. The life that lives behind the printed page and Web site is astounding. That obviously wasn’t the case 20 years ago. What was on your page was your narrative and it was simply a print voice. Now you have people who are your brand ambassadors or your consumers or following you on their Web site. The message is following you through their Web site. Now you’re able to learn so much behind the brand.”

Does he believe edgy advertising helps sales?

“If it’s done well. If it resonates and is brand appropriate and on message, sure it can spark controversy and encourage conversation and ultimately that would hopefully translate to sales. The consumer today is very savvy. They realize if something is done for shock value and they see through it. If it’s simply done to shock it can have a negative effect,” said DeCaro.

Ellis Verdi, owner of DeVito/Verdi, the New York ad agency that has done work for such clients as Sony, BMW, Daffy’s, Kohl’s, Esquire magazine, Time Out magazine, Grey Goose Vodka and Reebok has seen his share of controversy. “Controversial in and of itself is a challenge. If it’s just controversial to get headlines and unrelated to the brand, you could be doing yourself a disservice.” He said controversial advertising is bound to trigger negative letters even though the majority might like the idea. Sometimes a few negative letters and Facebook posts put clients in the position where they actually want to pull a campaign. “We always look to have truth in our advertising. The more truth you reveal the more you hit a nerve. Almost everything we do gets some degree of notoriety or some kind of reaction,” said Verdi. He said he is most offended by advertising that doesn’t say anything.

“I believe the digital arena has made clients feel they can control the results of their marketing expense. That sense of control puts clients in a position to look at accountability models and spending payback and they get lazy and they’re not talking about a creative solution.”

Verdi noted that a marketing meeting today seems more like a technology meeting and there’s not enough talk about — marketing. “Technology makes people feel like they can determine and measure results — even though many of those efforts are smaller, they make clients feel more secure. As opposed to big ideas and concepts that might come with less assurance of results but might actually hit it out of the park,” he said.


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