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Advertising In a Bare Market

NEW YORK -- In one ad, Laetitia Casta is ensnared in a web of diamonds, her body bare except for the glimmer and shimmer of strategically placed stones. In another she's crawling on a beach of diamonds at twilight, clad in a barely visible string bikini.

The former Victoria's Secret model is the dream woman of the new Diamond.com ad campaign--and the latest flash point in the never-ending debate about just how sexy, sensual or explicit advertising should be.

Of course sex is used to sell just about everything. But for some, the latest ads peddling fashion, fragrances and jewelry are ratcheting sexuality up to new heights. There's more full-out nudity. There's more eroticism (of lots of gender combinations). There are portraits of obvious states of arousal. And some hint clearly at sexual menace, even violence. This season's crop of sexually edgy ads aren't just pushing the envelope, they're shredding it.

Teasing cleavage? So '80s. A passionate embrace? How passe. Arms gracefully crossed over the breasts? Please.

In today's world, nipples are everywhere. Right there in the Yves Saint Laurent Opium ad, the model is splayed out wearing nothing but high heels. She seems to be fondling her breast.

And absolutely nothing comes between models and their Paul Morelli jewelry. In one ad, a woman wears only a bracelet, her body in sleek profile. In another, the model wears dangling pearl and diamond earrings, her bare breasts fully exposed for the camera.

Industry observers say advertising follows society, and that U.S. culture is getting even more loose about flesh and sex. And in a globalizing business, Europe's more open advertising standards also may be seeping in.

"Compared to Europe, it's first base. One small step for nipples," laughs Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology museum here in New York.

"You're seeing a lot of cross-pollination," Steele adds. A designer "might be English, the [fashion] house might be French, the photographer might be Japanese, the model Brazilian, the stylist Italian."

Whatever, says Wick Allison. Bottom line for Allison, editor and founder of D magazine, a high-tone Dallas lifestyle book, is that the sexuality is degenerate.

"I wish you'd stop calling it edginess. It's just vulgar," he says. He trashed the entire September issue of 70,000 copies and reprinted the circulation run two weeks late--all to get rid of two objectionable ads, including Gucci's premiere fall-line image.

That ad shows a woman on her hands and knees, her dress hiked up high on her thighs. She's clutching the hem to pull it down at the crotch, while over her stands a bare-chested--and apparently aroused--man.

"Offensive, obnoxious and despicable" is how Allison describes it.

Gucci, which also includes Yves Saint Laurent and whose in-house creative unit is run by Tom Ford, whom some in the business describe as a driving force behind much of fashion advertising's sexual edge, declined to discuss its ad campaigns.

Perry Ellis International was accused of going too far, as well. Earlier in the season, the clothing line abruptly discontinued use of a photograph after some consumers complained it was suggestive of rape, says Pablo de Echevarria, senior vice president of marketing. In the ad, a woman was sprawled on the floor of a shower with a man standing over her.

"We received several calls of women saying 'rape'; that it looked like the woman was drugged," de Echevarria recalls. Executives reviewed the ad.

"Once we saw it, we pulled it," he says.

Diamond.com hasn't had such dramatic objections to its ad campaign, but has been surprised nonetheless by critics. The Casta images were meant to capture the glamour of diamonds, their inherent sensuality and purity, says Ron Berger of the Diamond.com ad agency, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG.

"I look at them as beautiful photographs," says Berger, "not as cheap attempts at using nudity to sell diamonds."

Most fashion magazines ran the ad as designed. Even Architectural Digest ran it, despite reservations. But for some outlets, there was too much breast. The Wall Street Journal declined the ad, Berger says, even though the agency added more diamonds to cover Casta's breasts. Ditto for the huge billboards, including NASDAQ's digital one in Times Square.

"They were concerned with liability and traffic accidents," says Nicolas Topiol, Diamond.com's chief strategy officer.

Topiol was taken aback by the reaction. He considered it an "art-quality campaign." "We've had people calling us to buy the original artwork," he says.

"We didn't think that it was provocative to the extent that people reacted to it. Were we shocked? No. Disappointed? Yes. But what can you do about it?"

He says, "I come from Europe. I grew up in France. There, it's part of advertising. You see nudity to a great extent in advertising campaigns, and I think in the U.S. it's really progressing in that direction."

Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chair of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, which has done campaigns for Target, Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Cole, says the heightened sexuality is more a home-grown phenomenon.

"Advertising is always a reflection of societal trends, and at the end of the day there's been more of a focus placed on sexuality within our culture, I would say in the last 10 years," he says. "It's a much more relaxed environment and people have become more focused on erotic imagery, and it's become much more acceptable."

It's not just sex that's causing a stir. Sony just canceled a TV ad that showed Santa getting beaten and abducted. Mercedes-Benz in Manhattan reportedly took tremendous heat a few weeks ago because of an ad in the New York Times suggesting that a father can win his daughter's affection by buying her a Benz. Critics thought it was the height of hedonistic consumerism.

"Advertisers are trying to figure out how to stand out and it's harder and harder today," says Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age. "It's just becoming impossible to get consumers to pay attention to individual messages because they're being bombarded by messages every day, everywhere they look."

Enter the naked flesh. It stops us. We look.

But in the debate over taste, nudity and eroticism aren't really the issue, says Alan Kay of Kory Kay & Partners, whose signature ads were for Virgin Atlantic Airways and Honda. "Things can be presented in very good taste." And even in some cases, showing a product on a body makes perfect aesthetic sense. But advertisers often resort to nudity because a product may lack value on its own.

"You don't need a naked body and you don't need nipples if you have something else to sell," Kay says.

His own rule of thumb: "You know there's something wrong if it raises an eyebrow and something below the belt."

Sam Shahid, who runs his own agency, Shahid and Co., has been in the thick of disputes over sexuality through his work as creative director for Banana Republic and Calvin Klein. For the latter, he was in the eye of the storm nearly two years ago over criticism that his ads were just soft kiddie porn. Known as a "re-imager," he also is famous (or infamous, to some) for the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues that caused a stir last year because critics thought they were overly sexualized.

It was Shahid's agency that designed the Paul Morelli jewelry ads.

"We thought: Here's a great woman," he says of the photo shoot. "I mean, it's about the jewelry and she's very beautiful. It's just a wonderful way to focus on the jewelry. . . . We just go by gut instincts. . . . You don't sit there and say, 'Okay, let's shock people.' No. Her body worked, with the torso, the way it slants and curves."

"We're in a very physical time," he says. "If you ever go to the beach in summer, people are practically naked. We've learned to respect the body. It's beautiful."

Still, he adds, there remain unspoken codes within the magazine industry for what is and isn't acceptable. One magazine, for instance, will show breasts but not nipples. Another will show one breast, not both. It's all so tedious for Shahid. Like the "Dark Ages," he says.


Lynne Duke, Washington Post. December 8, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.