Calvin Klein apparently has its very own Nipplegate. The fashion house is once again pushing the edge advertisingwise, this time with the steamy TV ads featuring Eva Mendes for its new fragrance, Secret Obsession, from Coty Inc. And the spots already are controversial even before they air — the American networks failed to accept them. What’s tripping up the censors? An all-nude Mendes shows a little too much up top.

This story first appeared in the August 4, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

To see the commercial and judge for yourself, visit the site.

“This development is not entirely a surprise for the U.S. market,” said Tom Murry, president and chief operating officer of Calvin Klein Inc.

“We believe the commercial is exceptional and hits the mark for Secret Obsession. We will reach our consumers in the U.S. primarily through the Web site, the print campaign and at point of sale. We are anticipating a very successful global launch.”

But the spot’s creative director, Fabien Baron, was less diplomatic over the networks’ decision, which has forced Coty to create a less-provocative version — albeit one that can still only be shown after 9 p.m. Baron, reached in Europe, said he was totally surprised to hear about the controversy.

“You must be kidding me. This country really needs a new president — this country is so messed up,” said Baron. “It’s such a joke and it’s quite upsetting, frankly, how hypocritical this country has become. It’s OK for children to see people killed by guns? Spreading a little love right now would be a good idea.

“She is being a little sexy, but they are not provocative,” added Baron. “They are really well done. The spot is really beautiful — I really can’t believe this is happening.…I don’t know what else to say.”

The networks declined to comment on why they rejected the spots.

Secret Obsession’s campaign is certainly not the first time fragrance and fashion ads have pushed the envelope — particularly when Calvin Klein is part of the project. In fact, Klein has famously courted controversy with fashion ads going back close to 30 years. In the Eighties, Brooke Shields’ famous assertion, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” ignited a firestorm; Shields was 15 at the time and also pictured in the ad unbuttoning her shirt.

And 1995 was a banner year for controversial Calvin advertising. In July 1995, a series of ads for Calvin Klein Jeanswear, shot by Steven Meisel (who also shot the print ad for Secret Obsession), featured young models in suggestive poses and touched off a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into whether the ads could be considered child pornography. Dayton Hudson refused to list its stores in the advertising, and the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, said it would boycott all retailers who carried the jeans. “It looks like an audition for a porn movie,” one TV executive who viewed the commercial said at the time.

Later that year, in November 1995, a print ad for Calvin Klein Underwear, featuring then-20-year-old model Joel West in nothing but underwear and his legs spread wide, drew the ire of Linda Wachner, then head of Warnaco, as well as that of conservative Christian groups. “When I saw the original artwork [of West], I said ‘no!’” Wachner said at the time, after the ad appeared in two magazines. “How it got released was something else…unfortunately, it was released at Calvin Klein, and when we found out, we were very surprised…we have the right of refusal, since we pay for the ads.” A 2006 underwear ad featured Natalia Vodianova and Swedish hunk Freddie Ljungberg in various provocative vignettes, including reclining on top of each other.

As for the latest Calvin controversy, Catherine Walsh, senior vice president of American fragrances for Coty Prestige, isn’t surprised. In fact, she said that every time Coty runs advertising for the Calvin Klein brand, there is push-back. “Every time we do TV [with the Calvin brand], it comes back with some sort of push-back from the networks — but nothing like this,” she said.

The banned Calvin Klein TV ad “taps into the secrecy of a private moment — where it’s clear that Eva is having illicit thoughts,” Lori Singer, vice president of global marketing for the brand at Coty Prestige, told WWD. “It’s somewhat up to interpretation — because of how it’s shot, and what you see and hear, and what you can’t see and hear. You hear her voice, talking about having a sexy secret.” Provocative music and lots of skin add to the effect, she said.

Mendes appears alone in the ads, but Walsh and Singer are quick to point out she isn’t, well, acting out of what she’s vocalizing. Walsh calls the original TV spot “provocative, but not raunchy.”

In fact, the ad campaign was said to have evolved from trying a number of poses at the shoot. In May, Walsh called Mendes “a real pro,” noting the actress immediately got the Secret Obsession concept and worked with the team to create an image that “pushed the envelope.” While Coty executives were worried Mendes wouldn’t like the result, she was said to have loved their artistic flair. At the time, Murry commented, “This provocative new campaign conveys her universal appeal in a sensual way.”

Still, Coty and Calvin Klein clearly believe TV advertising is important for the fragrance and the “safe” version of the ad will begin running in the U.S. for the holiday season. “The starting point is the same for both ads,” Victoria Bluvstein, director of global marketing for Calvin Klein Fragrances, said. “The Web spot will be more overtly sexual than the ‘safe’ network version, which is more sensual rather than sexual. However, both are very tastefully done and consistent with the image of the brand. The concept behind this fragrance is having a secret obsession. That is going to be edgy, sexy and a little uncomfortable.”

The risqué version also has a peek at Mendes’ backside.

“Even the more modest version didn’t clear the U.S. networks initially, and now the spot is only approved to air during certain hours [after 9 p.m.],” said Bluvstein, who added there was “no real push-back” from media outlets outside of the U.S. “Globally, it will be a very rich campaign with a number of different print executions. All of the markets will be running a mix, with the centerpiece the ‘safe’ ad in the U.S. — including our buys on cable — and the original ad elsewhere.”

The print ad, like the TV ad, is also sexy, a black-and-white image of a sultry Mendes evidently caught in a moment of passion. “The TV [ad] really tells the story; the print is a snapshot of that,” said Walsh. The print ad will begin running in September fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazines. While none of the Coty executives would discuss sales projections or advertising spending, industry sources estimated that Secret Obsession could do $120 million at retail globally in its first year on counter. Coty is expected to spend $50 million globally on advertising and promotion, with as much as $25 million to be spent in the U.S.

But salacious advertising to peddle fragrance and fashion is certainly not limited to Calvin Klein — take agent provocateurs Tom Ford and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Ford’s print ad for M7, a men’s fragrance released by YSL Beauté in 2002, featured a full page of a male model showing off his family jewels, earning it rejection by U.S. print outlets including GQ, Out and Interview, although V, Flaunt, Index and Art Forum did run the ad. Most opted for a more demure version, which only showed the model’s head and a bit of his torso. Sean “Diddy” Combs, whose 2006 ménage à trois-inspired print ad for Unforgivable for Men was also widely rejected, came back a year later with a second provocative ad for the women’s version, also inciting ire from certain camps.

“We got an extreme amount of push-back and it affected us in department stores,” Combs said of the 2006 men’s campaign, which was reshot after a public outcry. “On the first ad, I wasn’t even near the women — but it was the imagination of the people that were looking at it. Their imagination went wild. I feel like it was just jarring for people to see a black man portrayed that way in ads. You never saw that. It was the first time in history that you really saw that level of sexuality, especially with other women that weren’t African-American. Especially in the Bible Belt, they weren’t really ready for it.”

The second ad, for Unforgivable for Women, featured Combs up against a wall with a model, his hand reaching between her legs. “In the second campaign, I was fully clothed in a three-piece suit. And they said it was still too intense.”

Still, Combs relishes being controversial. “I think that is the fun you get to have in fragrance and fashion sometimes — you get to push people’s buttons and you get to expose some of their insecurities and help them get over it. Eventually, they’re just exposing what turns them on and what they are attracted to; I think that they are sometimes afraid to feel a certain way…we take pride in pushing some people’s buttons. And breaking down some barriers.”

And avenues like the Internet give brands a little more room to play, said Combs. “Because of the Internet, you’re not really beholden to the networks only. We received millions of hits and millions of impressions on our uncensored ads online on Diddy TV and YouTube. So if you have an ad that is still tastefully done but you’re getting a lot of push-back from the networks, it still can have a life online.”

That was also proven by a banned ad campaign for Candie’s fragrance business, starring Alyssa Milano. The media campaign, titled “Anywhere You Dare,” showed Milano opening a large medicine chest full of condoms with a bottle of Candie’s fragrance on the bottom shelf. Many local television networks and teen magazines rejected the ads, although several magazines — including GQ, Details and Maxim — published the print ads, and several cable television stations, including MTV, VH-1 and Comedy Central, aired the commercials. The video continues to have an active life on YouTube.

In the end, what do these controversial ads cost the companies involved? Depends on who you talk to. In some cases, say pundits, such controversies actually provide millions of dollars of free advertising to the products involved. However, they’ve cost at least a few lucrative deals. A Benetton ad featuring death row inmates lost the company a lucrative distribution deal with Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 2000 and led to the departure of creative director Oliviero Toscani. But often, the controversy results in exactly what the company hopes to achieve: higher awareness of its products.

“Whether it is Calvin Klein or Sean John, I think we benefited from the overly cautious,” said Combs. “I think people look forward to seeing some sort of sensuality, some sort of edginess in fragrance ads. I think Calvin Klein is a founding father in how to do it in a tasteful yet respectable way. But at the same time, you know, it is fashion. Fashion is supposed to be able to push those boundaries.”

And as for money, even the $500,000 Federal Communications Commission indecency fine leveled at CBS Corp. over the original Nipplegate (for those who’ve been living under a rock, the “wardrobe malfunction” that bared Janet Jackson’s breast on national television during the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast) was thrown out last month, proving that sin does pay, at least in some instance.


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