By Letting People Be, Klein's Ads Break 'Rules'


Twelve 10-, 15- and 30-second spots for Calvin Klein's cK be unisex fragrance have been running on television since the middle of September. Since no hit show has emerged from the crop of new prime-time series, those commercials just might rate as among the best things on the tube. And because every Klein campaign represents a cultural watershed of sorts, their style and substance tell us much about fashion, values and life in the '90s. Pay attention to the messages. There'll be a quiz later.

In the manner of the Broadway musical "A Chorus Line," the black-and-white ads, directed by Richard Avedon, feature real people speaking to the camera, exposing their emotional lives. Skanky, stringy-haired, sometimes tattooed and pierced, their imperfections make them appear more exotic than the airbrushed jock-Aryan types who have dominated fashion advertising until recently.

When a professional like Kate Moss, who can do a glamorous turn when the situation warrants, appears on behalf of cK be, every freckle and blemish is left showing, as if they were windows into a messy soul.

It has been suggested that these unusual-looking folks (to put it kindly), models of nothing but interesting attitudes, will change the way society defines beauty. I doubt it. But they do present people who don't meet the media's customary standards of attractiveness as having passions, aspirations and concerns more compelling than "Don't hate me because I'm not beautiful."

In one of the longer cK be spots, a bemused young man tells the camera: You could get hurt. You could get sick. You could do all these things, and if you don't have intimate relationships that are strong, you're really alone. But alone is something I know how to do. Intimacy comes and goes. Alone is forever. Be single. Be plural. Just be.

A shorter spot instructs, "Be a saint. Be a sinner. Just be." Or "Be shy. Be bold. Just be."

It would be naive to believe that the cK be campaign sprang from some well of corporate humanism over at Klein headquarters. But it did strike me that these mantras serve a greater purpose than selling cologne. Their subtext is the perfect antidote to the mendacity of the infuriatingly successful "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (Warner, 1996).

If the lessons of that backward manual for mentally impaired Cosmo girls were distilled into cK be's haiku, it would read, "Be fake. Be manipulative. Be gamy. Don't just be."

"Rules" girls never tell the truth, don't admit to problems or insecurities. The cK be-ers are bundles of contradictory emotions, vulnerable charmers who believe in smelling good on their existential journey. The force of their quirky personalities draws you close, near enough to inhale their aroma. Just like in real life.

"The Rules" advises desperate women to hide behind a false image of perfection for as long as they can hold the pose. The cK be confessions champion honesty, an appropriate tack in this age of full disclosure. We just elected a president whose flaws didn't disturb most of us. The generation that once didn't trust anyone over 30 is now skeptical of anyone who clings to an image that's too squeaky clean. And so we say, even to our leaders, "Be faithful. Be sneaky. Be effective. Just be."

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