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Sending Out Shock Waves : Fashion: More clothing companies are using social commentary and jarring images to peddle their products.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Acurrent Benetton ad features a bloody newborn baby with its umbilical cord still attached. A black teen-ager warns against “killing her people” in a spot for Esprit. The messages are thought-provoking and even frightening. But in the 1990s fashion advertising game, these images represent a new way for apparel manufacturers to sell clothes.

Promoting fashion requires more than simply dressing a model, propping her in front of a colorful backdrop and waiting for the cash registers to ring. Today, advertisers also need a gimmick. And cutting-edge companies--including Benetton, Esprit, Anne Klein and Kenneth Cole--are actually choosing not to promote the products they presumably want to sell.

Instead, they are spending millions of dollars to turn their advertising campaigns into social commentaries. And they are banking on the hope that the same ads will bring them millions of dollars in sales.

A recent series of Benetton ads features a nun kissing a priest, and an angelic blond girl armlocked with a black boy whose hair is combed to resemble devil’s horns. These images angered both Catholics and African-Americans, and did little to increase sales at the Italian sportswear chain. The ads were rejected by a handful of magazines.

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“We did not accept the Benetton baby nor the priest kissing the nun,” says Fiona Martin, West Coast Advertising representative for Elle magazine. “That was a decision made by management in New York, who felt it didn’t fit in with the environment of the magazine. Part of that has to do with our readers but the primary objective is to keep our environment very positive and forward and those ads don’t fit that criteria.”

“It’s like pornography. You know it when you see it,” adds Beth Kseniak, director of public affairs for People magazine, which has not been offered current ads from Benetton nor Esprit. “I can tell you it would have to be in pretty bad taste for us not to run it. We would probably accept the Benetton ad. But if our readers responded negatively we might go back to the advertiser and tell them we can’t do it again.”

Equally provocative is Esprit’s new $3.5-million ad campaign focusing on adolescents and how they would change the world. “I’d keep a woman’s right to choose . . . unless George Bush is free to baby-sit,” says Massachusetts teen-ager Rachel Hirsch, who is pictured and quoted in one ad. She is among dozens of young people nationwide who were chosen to represent the San Francisco-based junior sportswear company. (None was required to wear Esprit clothing.) Company executives say the ads are their way of promoting freedom of speech, but they angered abortion foes and other special-interest groups.

Kenneth Cole shoes and No Excuses jeans have opted for more lighthearted political and social commentaries that are easier for most consumers to stomach. During the Bush/Dukakis presidential campaign, a Cole ad warned “Good luck and may the only loafers we see in the White House be ours.” Meanwhile, for No Excuses, Gary Hart playmate Donna Rice cautioned, “I have no excuses. I only wear them.”

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Sexual innuendo remains a key marketing ploy for many fashion advertisers. But this newer form of advertising--referred to by some executives as “the Madonna approach to media,” because the promotion has nothing to do with the product--raises questions in many consumers’ minds. Just what is being sold here, clothing or personal choices? What has sparked this new advertising frenzy? Who elected these companies to preach to us? How far will they go to sell a product? And what constitutes bad taste?

“We’re not selling morality and we’re not playing God,” says Neil Kraft, Esprit’s image director. “We’re selling the opportunity for people under 30 to speak out. These aren’t necessarily our opinions. For instance, one of our ads features a girl who wants to give the land back to native American Indians. That’s a very simplistic answer to the problem and most people won’t agree.”

So why not simply donate ad dollars to charity? “Because when you donate to charities it’s out of your control,” Kraft says. “If we can start a (free speech) movement on our own and we know it’s right for our audience, what’s wrong with putting it toward something we believe in?”

Kraft adds that there is always a danger of upsetting special-interest groups with advertising. “There’s a danger in what Kenneth Cole and Benetton are doing. And there’s a danger in running a print shirt that people don’t like. But when you invest your money, you want a certain risk in order to get the biggest return on your investment.”

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“Our commercials are not out of place in lieu of what appears on broadcast television and in films,” says Connie Francis, vice president of advertising at Anne Klein. One of the new Anne Klein A Line TV ads features reincarnation (a dog is a former A Line customer). The ad has angered Christian organizations.

Other A Line TV spots are sexually suggestive, including one that typically airs after 11 p.m. and features a man and woman rolling around under a sheet and a woman sitting on a bed removing her bra. “A lot of companies justify their ads as freedom of speech and the consumer can just take it or leave it,” Francis says. “We’ve never geared our commercials to start controversy. We were surprised when they did.”

But Dan Wieden, president and co-creative director of Wieden & Kennedy, the Portland-based company responsible for the A Line commercials, was not surprised. He says the company made several versions of the A Line bra commercial because it anticipated controversy. Anne Klein executives chose to run the raciest version.

“It’s very rare for entrenched values to be challenged by advertisers,” says Wieden. “But one reason it could be occurring is this growing urge for people to belong. A lot of people have lost their sense of roots, and I think brands have caught on to that fact. They are creating an opportunity to carve out a specific set of values, like a club, and customers can sign up and express those same values through the purchase of the product.”

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For a time, advertisers relied heavily on environmental issues. Now, it seems, if the message is somehow political, deviant, religious, hypocritical or otherwise controversial, then inquiring minds want to know about it.

Or do we?

“Based on reactions from some people you could say we’ve done a disservice to ourselves,” says Peter Fressola, director of communications for Benetton’s North American operations. “But in the long term, a campaign like this creates a certain energy and identity for the company that will appeal to a youthful consumer that is our target audience.”

Fressola calls this marketing. Others call it manipulation.

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“Marketing is always to some extent manipulation,” offers Ross Goldstein, a psychologist and principal of San Francisco-based Generation Insights, a consulting firm that helps advertising agencies track the psychological aspects of consumer spending.

He adds that “companies haven’t suddenly developed a conscience, but they are aware that their customers have (consciences). It’s a thin veneer between positioning and marketing, and the next shakeout will focus less on someone’s political, moral or environmental beliefs and more about what these companies are doing about it.”

Goldstein, whose recently published book, “fortysomething,” addresses the topic of “sensitive” advertising, admits there’s a potential danger in alienating certain groups.

“When you talk advertising you’re discussing a realm where you have to consider taste,” he says. “It’s a judgment every creative director and client has to make. You simply balance the benefits of getting people’s attention against those who will think it’s offensive.”

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Richard Kirshenbaum of New York-based Kirshenbaum & Bond, the advertising agency behind Kenneth Cole and No Excuses, says that although he appreciates what he calls “shock advertising,” he says it’s not always effective nor in the best interests of the client.

“Benetton has done some clever ads but they’ve recently gone over the top and that could hurt them,” he says. “I certainly would not have advised them to run the white angel girl and the black devil boy.”

Although shocking advertising is certainly not new, Kirshenbaum says recessionary times and diminishing ad budgets have forced more companies to take this path. “We call the concept the multiplier effect,” he says.

“We didn’t have much of a media budget on No Excuses but we were able to get the news stations to pick up the ads and run them for free. The shock value multiplies an ad budget by getting people to talk. If we spend $1 million on ads and get another $15 million in free publicity we suddenly have a $16-million ad campaign. It’s a way to keep costs down and still have a high profile.”

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But this raises another issue: Are advertising ploys legitimate news items? It depends on whom you ask.

“A lot of consumers don’t know the difference between advertising and editorial,” says Klein’s Francis. “We certainly don’t design commercials to generate press. But everyone has different interests and to some people our ads are newsworthy.”

Kenneth Cole maintains that gaining free publicity was not the motive behind his ads, which he says are less issue- and more consumer-conscious.

“When I deal with anything political, I try to sit on the fence,” he says. “I feel it’s irresponsible for private people with large advertising budgets to take a public position on something sensitive. It distorts the media.”

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A recent sampling of Cole ads include tongue-in-cheek wisecracks on everyone from Imelda Marcos (“If Imelda bought 270,000 pairs of shoes, she could have at least had the courtesy to buy one of ours.”) to Oliver North (“Isn’t it time Americans focus less on arms and more on feet.”)

“I believe the issues we deal with in our campaigns are real concerns to the consumer,” adds Cole, who once advertised a rolled-up condom with a pitch that pleaded: “Our shoes are not the only thing we recommend.”

“Advertising is a reflection of society at large,” insists adman Kirshenbaum. “It doesn’t lead society. We’re not out here to win any popularity contests. Unless you’re a brand, the essence of true marketing is sacrificing one customer for another.”

Psychologist Goldstein agrees, adding, “There’s always going to be companies out there that push the limits. A lot of people think Vanity Fair went over the line marketing a naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover. But I don’t think that’s true. They may have forced it a bit by censoring themselves with plain brown paper. But the current birth rate is 4 million per year, the highest since 1956. They are just keeping pace with society.”

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