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Model in Calvin Klein's "Kiddie Porn" Campaign Was a Sex Offender

There are plenty of obvious reasons brand managers shouldn't flirt with pedophilia in their advertising, but the death on Dec. 11 of former Calvin Klein model James Brandon Ralph is another one. Ralph appeared in the brand's infamous "kiddie porn" campaign in the mid-1990s and was later convicted of first-degree sexual abuse of a child 12 years old or under.

Ralph was 36 when he died. His obituaries do not mention how he passed but a source tells BNET it was suicide. His friends have posted video of Ralph on Vimeo and photos on Flickr.

In 1995, when he was just 20, Ralph appeared in print and TV ads for Calvin Klein Jeans. TV spots showed him standing, dressed in nothing but short-shorts, apparently embarrassed as a lecherous off-camera voice asks him where he got his "pretty blue eyes." The ads appear to be shot in a suburban basement, as if they were the home movies of a child abuser (video below).

At the time, the ads were so controversial that the Department of Justice investigated Calvin Klein because it was believed that some of the other models -- who were variously posed in states of undress or with their legs splayed -- were only 15 or 16 years old. No charges were brought, but Klein was forced to shelve the campaign.

Ralph later became a self-employed home remodeling contractor in Kentucky. There is no suggestion that Ralph's experience as a model for Calvin Klein was in any way connected to his abuse conviction.

Nonetheless, the events are a weird "life imitates art" moment that should warn fashion marketers that being as controversial as possible can come back to haunt you in unintended ways. American Apparel (APP) has repeatedly used models that look under-age in sexual poses, while both Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein have used rape themes in recent campaigns.

The campaigns are presented as sexy, dangerous fantasies, of course. In this case, the reality was rather more depressing.


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