Calvin Klein's "Rape" Ad Isn't Unique: How Treating Women Badly Sells Clothes

Last Updated Apr 26, 2011 9:46 AM EDT

The decision by an Australian advertising watchdog to order the removal of a Calvin Klein campaign because it appears to depict a woman in a cage being raped by three men (below) says a lot about advertising in the fashion world: Rape fantasies -- and other themes of non-consensual sex -- come up a lot in advertising for clothes, particularly in campaigns by Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbanna.


The Australian CK campaign seems derivative of the infamous Dolce & Gabbanna "gang rape" ad from 2007:


D&G defended that ad by saying it was supposed to depict an erotic dream or a sexual game. Herein lies the problem: Your darker fantasies are one thing. We all have them. But attaching them to your brand equity is usually a distasteful mistake. Except, it seems, in the fashion business. D&G has made this "mistake" repeatedly. Here's the gay version from the same 2007 campaign:


Here's the surreal Napoleonic version, part of a series of three which all featured soldiers, some carrying firearms, surrounding a naked woman:


Here's the role-reversal dominatrix version:


And -- because there's nowhere D&G won't go -- here is the ob-gyn-in-outer-space nightmare version:


Ninety-nine percent of brand managers would reject these images automatically. Pepsi rejected this speculative ad, for instance, which showed a boy swapping his Pepsi for a chance to give CPR to an unconscious woman on a beach:


But CK and D&G remain huge brands despite producing a startling number of rape-y ads. CK produced this "orgy" ad for its 2009 jeans campaign:


(I'm not an expert in orgies, but my impression is that they're supposed to involve more than one woman, so there's something more dangerous going on here than a mere "orgy.") The message these brands are sending is, "sexy and threatening," which is a great positioning given that their target is teenagers, and it also explains why the companies' sales are unaffected by these controversies.

But sales success doesn't justify everything. It's not that CK and D&G -- along with other labels, but less frequently -- have produced a couple of misogynist campaigns. It's that the labels repeatedly reference sexual assault in their advertising. In 1995, CK had to pull a campaign that used 15-year-old models shot against a basement wall in the style of kiddie porn. Of course, 15-year-olds can't consent to sexual activity with adults as a matter of law. So there was a real legal question as to whether this was an ironic reference to child pornography or the real thing.

A decade earlier, CK used the 15-year-old Brooke Shields, splay-legged in front of the camera, to announce that "nothing" comes between her and her Calvins.


It's almost as if the two fashion houses are egging each other on to see how far they can go. They're not alone of course. That "sexy and threatening" meme has been used by suitmaker Duncan Quinn:


The Italian label Relish was condemned for a billboard campaign showing police officers in Rio assaulting two models:


And, in the 1960s, pants maker Broomsticks produced this shocker:


Each ad on its own can be written off as mere fantasy, with the sinister undertones in your head and not in the image. American Apparel (APP) made that argument recently when one of its ads in the U.K. was banned because it appeared to show a partially unclothed, under-age female
model
:

When you use the term "child porn" to describe every provocative ad featuring models that aren't plastic-titted Jenna Jameson lookalikes or waxed steroid muscle boys, when you use the term to describe adults photographed in natural settings with natural light, when you use the term for anything other then the real thing, all you do is muddy the waters. An underwear ad with an adult model is not child porn, even if it makes you feel a little lecherous. Get over it, ...
That explanation would be fine, if we were only talking about one or two ads. But given the industry's obsession with non-consensual sex, and how badly women in fashion advertising are repeatedly treated, it's pretty clear that it's the marketing managers who are the lechers, not their consumers. The trouble is that unless consumers stop buying these labels -- which will never happen -- the managers will conclude that rape in advertising works.

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