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NEW YORK — Sexual overtones and innuendo are nothing new in product marketing, but Diesel goes out of its way in its fall ad campaign to raise eyebrows.

A friendly game of tick-tack-toe seems less so when the Xs and Os are lashed into the back of a shirtless model, his hands bound above his head and a smirk showing on his face as he glances over his shoulder at the two female players with coiled whips in the foreground. Three pairs of legs straddle a naked man in a display of Diesel footwear. In other shots, the head of a bearskin rug is fitted with a gag ball and two feet emerge from one pant leg.

More than one print publication has balked at running the ads, which hit the pages of the August issues of magazines such as GQ, Details, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and Vogue. (GQ, Details and Vogue, like WWD, are owned by Advance Publications Inc.) It’s a reaction the premium jeans manufacturer expected and with which it is comfortable.

“Of course, there have been some companies that said, ‘Sorry guys, it’s too much for us,’ but we’re thinking that is what we need,” said Maurizio Marchiori, vice president of marketing.

For Marchiori and Dan Barton, director of communications, the new campaign marks the end of a two-year period during which the company focused on upping the fashion quotient of its premium jeans.

“If you looked at the history of Diesel, these last two years is where you’d see the most accelerated focus on quality,” said Barton. “The change of vision has been that we think we’re the best manufacturer of premium denim in the world. Now, we’re applying that to the fashion collection.”

The company has substantially increased its advertising budget to support its high-fashion desires, allotting $12 million to advertising for 2005. Nearly 90 percent of that budget, said Marchiori, is devoted to print advertising. Diesel spends between 5 and 7 percent of sales, which came in at $1.25 billion in 2004, on a variety of marketing, said a Diesel spokeswoman.

The idea for the campaign was developed through a partnership between Diesel’s own creative team and ER27, a French advertising agency that is a division of Havas, a $1.86 billion advertising conglomerate based in Suresnes, France.

This story first appeared in the July 12, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We try to achieve a new standard without losing the company’s DNA,” said Marchiori of the new campaign. Maintaining DNA means keeping the jeans the star of the show. “The product is the hero,” he said.

To execute the idea, Diesel brought in photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot, who recently shot Uma Thurman for Louis Vuitton’s winter campaign. A four-day shoot took place in late April in New York and produced more than 20 sexually charged ads for Diesel jeans and accessories.

Barton and Marchiori stress there is a difference in exploiting overt sexuality and the way the campaign addresses sex. Each image of the Diesel campaign presents sex in a playful manner and leaves ample room for viewers to fill in the blanks of what has gone on prior to the snapping of the shutter.

“Diesel has always been provocative,” Barton said. “That kind of provocation always manages to manifest itself, and this campaign is no different.”

Marchiori believes consumers have become more intelligent, demanding more of a reason to purchase.

“We are conveying more of a message than just go buy jeans,” said Marchiori.

Barton said that while provocation as a strategy requires walking a fine line, the new campaign is in keeping with the company’s historical approach.

“It’s a lot easier to get a celebrity, knowing full well that it will sell quite well,” said Barton. “This campaign definitely isn’t the easy road.”

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