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Mad. Ave Goes (Soft) Porn

Recently we pointed to a barrier of taste being broken, with advertising designed to shock viewers with unvarnished demonstrations of car crashes and tracheotomies. Now it seems another, even more controversial bastion of taste is being challenged--decency.

Sexuality as part of a sales pitch is nothing new, of course. But lately, there are more and more signs that advertisers are willing to leave little to the imagination. Edgier brands targeting younger, hipper audiences are taking risks they weren’t prepared to take before.

In Pictures: Advertising Goes Adult

Remember the Calvin Klein jeans campaign from 1995, the one in which teenaged models were asked suggestive questions by an older, off-camera voice? Those ads evoked widespread public indignation (including from the president, pre-Monica), which prompted an apology from Klein himself. But not before the furor had multiplied the value of a relatively limited media budget.

Those ads now appear tame compared to the new wave. Boundaries are being stretched like never before.

Why the shift to more explicit material? Blame the Internet. Until recently, advertisers depended on paid media to get eyeballs for their advertising images or video, and paid media operates under the watchful eye of government regulators. On the Internet, anyone who owns a Web site can become a media owner and play largely by his or her own rules.

The Internet is also erasing the historical barriers that separated erotica and even hardcore pornography from mainstream culture. No more seedy theaters, shadowy stores or "discreetly wrapped" packages. Porn is now accessible any time in the privacy of your own computer terminal, cable box or hotel room.

At the same time, porn stars are making the transition to mainstream celebrity. Jenna Jameson is doing ads for the Adidas Group’s Adicolor line, and now she’s preparing to launch her own fashion line, a marked transition from infamy to fame.

Perhaps more surprisingly, select upscale marketers are becoming open to an association with adult imagery. Fashion designer Marc Jacobs, for example, recently gave a porn movie crew permission to shoot a scene in his SoHo store (if it's any consolation, the movie is billed as a porn "remake" of Fellini's classic "La Dolce Vita"). Has Marc Jacobs gone mad? Not at all. Rather, a calculated move: In the jaded world of fashion and entertainment, association with porn is becoming a way to demonstrate edginess.

An adult movie shoot in a high fashion store might pique the interest of celebrities and industry insiders, but risqué online ads are bound to have a much broader impact. Take upscale lingerie brand Agent Provocateur, whose "Dreams of Miss X" made-for-Internet movies star Kate Moss in various states of undress. European standards for nudity might be more lax, but of course Agent Provocateur's movies can be seen by Internet users in the U.S. just as easily as in Europe. On the Internet, wardrobes can malfunction with relative impunity.

Yet even that effort pales next to the campaign for French clothing brand Shai (pronounced "shy"), which has released a new catalog in the form of made-for-Internet porn movies. Search Shai on Google and you are directed to a company site aptly titled sexpacking.com that features three movies labeled "men-women," "men-men" and "women-women." The copy is a simple play on the brand name: "There's no reason to be shy," and the actors surely aren't. What does a porn scene have to do with clothes?Scrolling over little green dots allows viewers to get more information on the items worn (or taken off) by the porn stars.

Is this smart marketing? Advertisers have always ridden the coattails of popular culture to get attention and connect with their audience. Pornography today clearly qualifies as popular culture, representing some 25% of daily search engine requests. Discretion--and laws designed to protect minors from explicit content--will prevent this from becoming a mass marketing technique. But for fashion or lifestyle brands with well-defined audiences, X-rated ads may well be worth the risk.


Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak, Forbes.com. October 5, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Forbes.com Inc.. All rights reserved.