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NEW YORK — Is fashion advertising effective when it’s incongruous with images conjured by a brand’s products? Or does the disconnect erode a brand’s franchise with consumers?

That depends on who one asks.

This story first appeared in the July 14, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The good news for the fashion business is that it has focused mainly on advertising product, rather than brand building via concise, customer-centric verbal messages and emotionally appealing visual metaphors. Paradoxically, the sector has more leeway than most to serve up ad images disconnected to the apparel itself. As Kevin Roberts, chief executive officer worldwide at Saatchi & Saatchi, observed, “Fashion ads don’t express creative ideas; they have a look. They’re like wallpaper and the consumer couldn’t care less.

“Fashion ads that don’t [focus on] a product can be successful, if they are consistent with a brand’s equity, convey a creative idea and touch the consumer in a time and place where she’s receptive,” Roberts added, citing Kenneth Cole’s socially conscious-to-humorous advertising as an example.

Further, people expect fashion players to live on the edge and, as a result, apparel brands gain more ready acceptance when they veer away from people’s traditional notions about their goods, a dozen brand consultants, advertising executives and marketing specialists agreed. Indeed, some nonfashion brands associate themselves with the world of style in order to glean some of that cachet.

A case in point: Canon’s current campaign for its PowerShot digital camera, which shows the small, slim silver-and-black item nestled against a woman’s calf, tucked under the strap of her sexy, black sandal on a silver stiletto heel. “Canon is trying to capitalize on the design element of the camera and associate it with luxury,” said Jill Glover, president and executive creative director of Glover Group, whose clients include Eileen Fisher, Joseph Abboud and Ecco.

That’s where the consensus ends, however.

In one camp are those who contend apparel brands are less likely to break through the marketing and media clutter with images that depart from their DNA — despite a fashion consumer who tends to be more open to unexpected marketing messages than customers for other products. This group points to the overwhelming amount of stimuli Americans encounter in their everyday lives, including an average of 3,000 ad impressions and 1,500 trademarked products daily, according to market researchers. Thus, the disbelievers in disconnect reason, ad messages that fly in the face of a brand’s accustomed associations are likely to be lost in the media mist.

“We have found the more creative consonance an ad has with a brand’s attributes, the more likely the ad is to get higher levels of attention and awareness from the consumer,” said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a marketing consultant specializing in customer loyalty. “The question is how far a brand can stray from consonant images before people fail to believe in it.” One such trap to avoid, advised Renegade Marketing president Drew Neisser, is trying too hard to be cool. “To throw a curve ball can be very tempting, but it’s very foolish for brands to pretend to be cool when they’re not,” Neisser said, in referring to our society’s nonstop marketing blitz.

If fashion marketers push too far into the realm of dissonant images, indulging in what some dismiss as creativity for creativity’s sake, Passikoff, for one, has conducted studies that show those campaigns are likely to:

  • Lose people’s attention.
  • Prompt people to think less highly of the brand advertised.
  • Prompt people to think of another brand.

For example, Passikoff said, after Calvin Klein ran a lot of black-and-white ads with teen models in sexy poses, “everyone thought of Calvin Klein any time they saw a similar black-and-white ad, because he owned the look.”

Although advertising is critical in today’s world, Michael Watras, ceo of brand identity consultant Straightline International, asserted, “It must be connected in some way with the brands we live with. To get a return out of an ad, there has to be a better connection than the Marc Jacobs ads with photos of Juergen Teller and Charlotte Rampling [canoodling] in bed, or the Toscani shock ads for Benetton, in years past,” Watras maintained.

In large part, that’s because consumers are much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago — better informed, and more caring and discerning about various goods, observers pointed out. In addition, Chapel Hill, N.C.-based marketing consultant Yankelovich Partners found in April that two-thirds of Americans feel constantly bombarded with too much marketing, 59 percent believe most marketing has very little relevance to them and 69 percent are interested in products or services that can help them avoid marketing pitches. As a result, said Michael Silverstein, author of “Trading Up: The New American Luxury” (Portfolio), people now have several screens for ads: Is the ad relevant? Does it teach me anything? Am I trustful of the image? Does it impact my behavior?

“If an ad doesn’t connect within four or five seconds, people turn away, as they are bombarded with so many images daily,” noted Silverstein, who also is executive officer in the office of the ceo at Boston Consulting Group. “That limits the effect of shock ads or any ads disconnected from a product’s attributes or a brand’s equity.”

In the realm of fashion, Diesel, French Connection, Benetton, Abercrombie & Fitch, Christian Dior, Levi’s Type One and Gap, as well as Kenneth Cole, were commonly cited as brands whose advertising — at times, if not consistently — has been discordant with the impressions made by their goods. Most of them have done so successfully, observers said, with the notable exceptions of the Levi’s Type One Super Bowl commercial this year, an animated cartoon fantasy of stampeding bulls on a highway, and Gap’s black-and-white “Gap. For Every Generation” campaign of August 2002. Both Gap and Levi’s were criticized for losing the plot informing their brand stories in a desperate grab for attention. In Gap’s case, ironically, there was a chasm between the stark, black-and-white celebrity photographs and the merchandise in-store, as well as a muddled message from a store whose name — and original premise — spoke to a generation gap between youth and adults and what each group wanted to wear. And the Levi’s Type One spots left some wondering why the jeanswear giant eschewed its aura of authenticity, the very basis of the brand’s equity.

“Did I connect to the Levi’s Type One [Super Bowl] commercial? No,” said Eric Scott, ceo of Wolff Olins USA, a London-based brand consultant. “Levi’s is supposed to be about the authentic jean, so I didn’t get it. It had to be a complete failure because they ran it so briefly,” Scott posited.

And reams have been written about how Gap rediscovered its marketing muse when it jettisoned its “For Every Generation” campaign for holiday 2002, replacing it with colorful, upbeat ads that hinted at the colorful sweaters and striped scarfs available at Gap stores.

In other instances, a marketing campaign that strikes a note discordant with a brand’s image may run out of gas unexpectedly. Such was the case with Benetton’s shock ad campaigns of years past, famously photographed by Oliviero Toscani, portraying images including HIV victims, a black horse mounting a white one and a nun kissing a priest, some advertising executives said. (Toscani exited his post as Benetton’s creative director in May 2000.)

“For many years, Benetton did wonderful work with ads that were disconnected to the product, ads that positioned the brand as a window on social issues,” offered Saatchi & Saatchi’s Roberts. “Post-9/11, the shock appeal of those social issues has dissolved. As we hear about the war in Iraq and terrorism daily, social issues that were once brave and highly visceral have become commodified,” Roberts contended. “Now, marketing needs emotional components to cut through.”

In contrast, when asked about the recent Marc Jacobs campaign, ads each portraying one in a series of “snapshots” of Juergen Teller romping in bed or reclining on a couch with Charlotte Rampling, most observers viewed them as a world apart from the brand’s fashion, which, they said, evoked feelings of romance. “I think of Marc Jacobs the brand as more about the light side of fashion — a bit friendlier and happier,” Glover said. “There’s a disconnect with the [Teller and Rampling] images. They evoke something exclusive, forbidden,” she contended. “I don’t feel the product is that way or he is that way.”

Through another’s eyes, though, the Teller-Rampling ad series was interpreted as a visual metaphor for Jacobs’ own mind-set — whatever it might be. “I believe Marc Jacobs was trying to communicate a belief or an idea about Marc Jacobs, rather than his apparel,” said Wolff Olins’ Scott. “It is current; there is a sense of reality to it. It suggests something has happened before and something will happen after it,” he conjectured. “It doesn’t feel fabricated, it feels true.”

Another version of ad disconnect, Polo Jeans’ current G.I.V.E. campaign — photographed in black and white with splashes of red, and inviting readers to learn about volunteerism, at — drew applause as a departure from Polo/Ralph Lauren’s signature aspirational ad fantasies. At the Web site, visitors learn Polo will donate 10 percent of sales of G.I.V.E. goods to benefit volunteers and their causes. “That’s a case of brands connecting with people’s feelings rather than their rational needs,” said Marc Gobe, brand image guru and author of “Emotional Branding” (Allworth Press). “That is truly emotional branding, instead of putting clothes on a model and giving people logical reasons to wear the fashion,” Gobe pointed out. “It gives you a sense of self-esteem. The ad is about uplifting your life, versus simply wearing a product.”

Indeed, Gobe belongs to the contingent who maintains marketing fashion brands in a manner that breaks sharply with product images can rise above media clutter, winning the hearts of people who: increasingly skip commercials, via channel surfing or digital video recorders such as TiVo; quickly bypass fashion print ads for brands barely distinguishable from one other, and are less inclined to spend on apparel than other things, notably home goods, cars, food and travel. “Those are the top four categories for consumer-spending trade-ups — and apparel is getting the scraps,” Boston Consulting’s Silverstein related.

Some observers, such as Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, believe the boldness of disconnect is called for in an age of bombardment marketing that has numbed consumers to the messages spewing forth, provided a brand’s primary audience isn’t alienated in the process. “Diesel has always [played with] advertising disconnect,” Salzman said. “It paints you a Diesel world, a slice of life where Diesel is a participant, versus selling you a pair of jeans,” she added. “The idea of an ad disconnect is to raise the question of what is really for sale.” In this case, the apparent message is: People who wear Diesel jeans can be part of a Diesel world.

For most believers in disconnect, discordant marketing merits a qualified thumbs-up. As often is the case, they find the truth of the matter lies between the extremes of outright endorsement or rejection. “There’s a varying degree of elasticity to different brands — some can be stretched more easily than others,” acknowledged Renegade’s Neisser. For example, he said, “While some brands try to be too sexy, in fashion, it’s harder to say ‘Don’t go there.’”

The nature of the audience receiving the marketing message helps to determine the effectiveness of disconnected marketing tactics as well, contended Arthur Korant, creative director at marketing communications agency Double Platinum. “For the under-35 crowd it’s fun; if it’s an older audience, it’s harder for them to get it,” Korant asserted. “People under 35, who grew up using a computer while watching TV and doing other things, respond better to disconnect.”

The bottom line, said brand-loyalty specialist Passikoff, isn’t whether an ad makes creative use of disconnect. “The issue is whether it sells anything,” he emphasized. And especially so, as magazine fashion ads — the longtime staple of apparel marketing — continue to face a diversifying range of competitors: Word-of-mouth, emerging media, guerrilla marketing and store-as-theater are on the ascent. “The windows of the Diesel and French Connection stores in SoHo function like a TV screen, as a vehicle to inspire and provoke,” observed Saatchi & Saatchi’s Roberts. “They’re not about product. Stores are the next theater of dreams; it’s where 80 percent of people make purchasing decisions,” he noted. “One day, fashion magazines will be dominated by nonfashion advertising,” Roberts projected.

Or, as Boston Consulting’s Silverstein put it: “There is a lot of shower advertising out there today; ideas thought up in the shower that just don’t work. We’ve found effective ads combine information about a product’s technical benefits with an emotional component that gives people a basis for belief,” he related. Ads with an absence of those attributes, Silverstein added, “are irrelevant — and marketers would be better off investing their money in product.”