NEW YORK — Controversy in advertising is chic again — from Marc Jacobs to Bud Lite.
In recent seasons, sobriety has swept the advertising landscape after a Nineties of sexually aggressive nudes, porno-chic and sadomasochistic images. Now provocation has returned to fashion with Marc Jacobs serving up Winona Ryder, who was recently found guilty of shoplifting from Saks Fifth Avenue, and Tom Ford (being Tom Ford) shaving out a “G” in a woman’s pubic area for his Gucci campaign, or a male model spanking a female one in another Gucci ad. Not to mention all those TV ads outside of fashion that continue to push the edge of taste — like the dueling buxom babes in bras and panties in the Bud Lite commercial, which some groups have labeled, not surprisingly, sexist.
While the age-old question of whether provocative advertising leads to increased sales is debatable — it worked for CK Jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch, but did less long-term for Benetton and Kenar — observers agree it gets companies noticed and people talking.
“All kind of hype brings awareness. Good, bad or whatever,” said Donna Karan.
Observers believe both the Gucci and Marc Jacobs ads are simply reflective of their companies. There’s more of a shock quality to Gucci’s “G” ads, though, while casting Ryder isn’t shocking at all. And Jacobs himself claimed that wasn’t the point of the exercise.
“I asked Winona to do the campaign because I thought she looked so beautiful in all these pictures that we’ve seen recently, regardless of whether they were from the trial,” the designer said in a telephone interview. “She’s always loved the clothes, she’s always been a good customer, she’s always worn the clothes.
“We had asked her before [to do the campaign]. I don’t know what happened; I think it just didn’t work out. Robert [Duffy, president of Marc Jacobs] had always gone through this with Juergen [Teller, who shot the latest ads]. She was one of the people we wanted to include because she’s one of the beautiful people who wears our clothes. Our ads are always about a relationship, whether its Sofia [Coppola], Kate [Moss] or Stephanie [Seymour]. This time, I just mentioned to Juergen that she’s looked so beautiful, and asked if he’d be interested.”
Still, the designer is prepared for greater-than-usual interest in the campaign. “It would be stupid for me to say I didn’t expect any reaction,” he added. “I think people are all over everything. People who want to make a big deal will make a big deal — we all look for something to talk about. Someone who’s in the news for anything, whether it’s about being an Olympic skater or for shoplifiting — makes for a story. But I’m not really interested in all of that. I just wanted beautiful pictures.”
And what about Ryder? “Winona sent me the nicest note with beautiful flowers. She wrote, ‘I’m thrilled that you asked me — I’ve always loved wearing the clothes, and it’s a great honor for me.’ And I think she had a ball with Juergen at Chateau Marmont.”
Perhaps Jacobs shouldn’t worry, though — the consensus is that the use of Ryder was a perfect fit.
“I personally think that’s genius,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, the New York ad agency, about the Ryder ads. “She’s a world-class beauty and looks great in Marc’s clothes.
“The best thing about the trial was him and his clothes. She faced the prosecution with style and élan and she looks great. Something about women going to prison, everyone seems to like,” added Kirshenbaum.
“Marc Jacobs is taking a risk that this move will bring controversy in a highly visible way,” said Donald Ziccardi, chief executive officer of Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee. “If Winona committed a murder, it would be stupid, but because she had a relatively minor judgment against her, it’s not a terrible crime. It may add more visibility to the brand.”
Ryder was practically a postergirl for Marc Jacobs during her recent trial, wearing the designer’s demure coats and dresses. In December, a jury found Ryder guilty of shoplifting nearly $5,500 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue’s Beverly Hills store and she was convicted of felony grand theft and vandalism. She was sentenced to three years of probation, ordered to perform 480 hours of community service and fined $3,700. She also was ordered to undergo drug and psychological counseling.
Saks Fifth Avenue declined comment on the Jacobs-Ryder campaign. However, one retailer noted that when a designer introduces a controversial campaign it can reverberate throughout the store.
“When you’re doing something with a designer, like a big event such as a fragrance launch or store appearance and the designer happens to have a controversial campaign running at the time, you do hear complaints from customers,” the retailer said. Still, the retailer doubts that any stores would show Jacobs the door even if they deemed the ads to be in poor taste due to Ryder’s notoriety.
“Marc Jacobs is an incredibly important resource and incredibly important within the design world and very directional,” the executive said. “His ad campaign is his ad campaign. That’s how it was with Calvin Klein when his ads were controversial.”
“It’s a brilliant career move for her,” added Kirshenbaum. “It depicts how designers and stars are aligned in good times and bad. I’ve always been of the opinion that if something goes over the line of good taste in the long run, it hurts the brand. But if you go up to the line, it’s fine.”
The Gucci and Marc Jacobs ads are not the only campaigns this spring attempting to make jaws drop, though. For instance, Wrangler’s ad this season, which appears in The Face, shows a young man urinating on a rock in a park. The tagline? “There’s a little bit of the West in all of us.”
“It’s reality TV turned to advertising,” said Ingrid Sischy, the editor in chief of Interview. “In the Sixties and Seventies, we had the shock of the new, then in the Eighties with postmodernism, we had the shock of the old. Now we have the shock of the real,” she said, noting that she would be running Gucci’s G-Spot ad. “I think it’s a fun ad. My question is: who’s the hairstylist?”
Terry Richardson, the photographer who has never shot a pair of legs that weren’t spread, also doesn’t understand all the fuss about the Gucci ads.
“The key to ads is to get people to remember them and to get press. You do what you need to do to get attention.” Amusingly, Richardson himself doesn’t seem to think most of fashion’s raciest campaigns are all that shocking. “What’s going on in the world today is much more shocking than what’s going on in those pictures,” he said.
Shock advertising is definitely an attention-grabber, but the danger lies in crossing that fine line between intriguing customers and offending them. It also depends on the brand that’s doing it.
“I think overall some brands are better suited to [shock advertising] than others,” said Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird & Partners, the New York ad agency. “With Winona, she’s had this scandalous year. She’s very stylish. It’s one of these scandals that was covered more for what she wore. It was Marc’s clothes. If it was a B-type company, it would be tacky and just a moment to capitalize on Winona’s skid. She’s been a long-term client of Marc’s, and it’s kind of clever.”
On the other hand, Laird believes that Ford “has a history of being sexually very provocative.
“His sexually-charged image is the new Calvin. Calvin used to hold that turn. Tom is the modern version of that. Whether it’s genius or not, it fits into their brand. If St. John came out with it, it would be a desperate attempt to get attention.”
James Twitchell, author of “Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury,” and professor of English at the University of Florida, said, “When you have an interchangeable product, like water, you can’t ask that there be a taste distinction in the product. So you have to generate the taste distinction somewhere else….In the area of luxury goods, if you look at what they do, they’re close to the same things. There’s no intrinsic difference. Which is why, to be successful, you have to generate, as Tom Ford does, some outrageous advertising, or some outrageous display in the design of the hardware.
“From a marketing standpoint, I feel quite sympathetic. What do you do when your product is very similar to everyone else’s? This is part of the brand’s expectation. Part of the expectation is that Gucci is going to this place. There are not really luxury goods at all. The only thing extraordinary about it is the advertising. I’m not saying some of the stuff isn’t very expensive, but they make most of their money on 18-year-old girls buying a purse. It’s the massive-ication of luxury. What you’re really buying and tasting is the advertising.”
Marketing consultants cited Christian Dior’s recent print campaign, which mixes car-crash imagery with alluring women, as well as French Connection’s ongoing F.C.U.K. branding effort, as examples of shock advertising that works. Failed efforts, they said, include Budweiser’s Super Bowl spots, which portrayed a clown doing handstands and attempting to drink Bud through his legs, and the Benetton ads of the Nineties, whose original, socially conscious themes morphed into imagery that observers put in the gross-out column. Then there’s Victoria’s Secret, which has generated its share of controversy for its racy runway shows, and later this month it will print and distribute “Sexy,” a limited-edition book it said will feature “provocative images, some of which have never been seen before because they were too racy for advertising.”
“There are three types of shock ads — sexual, gross-out, and provocative social imagery,” noted Mike Cucka, a partner in Group 1066, a marketing consultancy based here. “The tasteless, vulgar image in Bud’s clown commercial probably didn’t do much for the brand. The Benetton campaign sought to build social awareness, but it eventually became all about the shock.”
Nonetheless, shock value can break through the ad clutter and help build the profile of a brand with an edgy or extreme sensibility, marketing executives said.
“Most people have their defenses up against advertising, and shock ads can get deep into people’s minds,” noted Mark Joyner, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant and author of “Mind Control Marketing.” “But it will only work inasmuch as it doesn’t blow the credibility of the person or brand doing it.”
While agreeing that offensive ads are generally ineffective, Joyner pointed out that ads initially perceived as objectionable can become influential with the passage of time. He named Calvin Klein’s Brooke Shields campaign of the Seventies; Klein’s Nineties ads using teen models in sexually suggestive poses, and the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, using young, nude models, as examples of that phenomenon.
For example, when Calvin Klein launched a CK Jeans campaign in 1995, which got him in trouble with the Justice Department because some felt they bordered on child pornography, a storm of media activity ensued. Soon after, Klein withdrew the ads under the intense glare of TV stations, conservative watchdog groups and retailers. Meanwhile, Klein’s jeans sales soared. When Abercrombie & Fitch launched its quarterly in the fall of 1997, sales started to skyrocket. On the other hand, in 1995, Benetton was involved in a court case where German store owners claimed its ad campaigns had hurt their sales.
“The question is how deeply the target market cares,” Joyner said. “Even if the conscious mind rebels, the subconscious mind still may respond to the primal desires stimulated by an [offensive] ad. Those ads surprise the subconscious.”
Stuart Ewen, author of “All-Consuming Images” and distinguished professor of media history and sociology at Hunter College at CUNY, said about Ford’s pubic hair ad: “What’s different here is that the lifestyle being portrayed is a very burned-out one, a pornographic one. I don’t mean that as a negative thing; I’m being descriptive. The shaven pubic hair has been this edge of eroticism going back a long time, and is one of the ways we can look at the trajectory of this form of advertising. It’s really about the display of female genitalia, which, viewed on one hand, is sexist and bad, and on the other is just the display of female genitalia, which some people like.
“It doesn’t show pink, but it’s getting there. The next thing will be a piece of jewelry, the “G” attached to the [genitalia]. Once you’ve gone to [pubic hair] the next thing is about piercing,” he said.
George Fertitta, chief executive officer of Margeotes, Fertitta, the New York ad agency, said that one individual ad doesn’t build a company’s image, nor can it be responsible for building a brand.
“These are individual ads that are part of a program. It’s hard to dissect one ad and say if it builds a brand. One of the roles of advertising today is to be noticed,” he said.
Fertitta said he doesn’t consider Jacobs’ ad particularly shocking. “I don’t look at it as shock value but more a provocative page-stopper. She is a symbol of style and fashion at this time and notoriety and unfortunate addiction,” he said. “It’s sort of like taking a page out of Kenneth Cole’s book when he featured Imelda Marcos, and it got a small company noticed.”
But Fertitta asked, “Does Marc Jacobs require the borrowed interest of Winona Ryder?
“I personally think it’s fine to use Winona Ryder. It’s not terribly shocking. Give the girl a break. I think most Americans have a reservoir of forgiveness inside of them and we’d like to see her get back on her feet. If this is the first step, it’s a good step.”
As for Gucci, he said, “they’ve really crafted an image that’s gone from completely uncool to in style and as cool as it gets. [The ‘G’ image] is a small piece of the cool puzzle. It’s fine and won’t turn people off. Gucci is all about Ford and he has that kind of talent. Nothing you can do can hurt that. He’s impervious.”
But getting noticed has its advantages and disadvantages — just ask Bruno Magli.
Alex Zschokke, managing director of Bruno Magli, whose shoes gained notoriety during the O.J. Simpson trial, said, “The expression that sex sells, this will always be true. The question is, who’s your target customer? I’m sure that controversy gets the attention of customers, the question is if you can then provide a level of service and the right product that the customer is after. I’m sure that the publicity from the O.J. trial helped the brand to be more popular. But if you don’t have the product, the service and then deliver after, the buzz doesn’t turn into business.
“I don’t want to have a second O.J. Simpson case,” said Zschokke. “We are trying to be more low profile, and more substantial in our attempt to create luxury that is meaningful, not to show off luxury and this ‘show-off’ kind of message.”
“Controversy fuels the fire, for sure. Fashion is as gossipy as the movie star industry. They go hand in hand,” concluded Richie Rich, designer for Heatherette. “But you can only associate with somebody that is involved in a controversy that won’t taint their image too much. Amy Fisher or John Wayne Bobbit is tacky controversy. You don’t want them. But if they make a little goof, that’s OK. What Winona did is just comical. She didn’t hurt anyone. All the great ones have lived their lives in controversy, from Madonna to Elvis. Galliano is the best example of that. His collections are always full of controversy.”