MILAN — For a long time, it seemed that cutting-edge marketers thought the only way to sell jeans was with sex.

Diesel, a denim apparel company here, has other ideas. It has already raised eyebrows in the past with its controversial handling of issues such as gun control, smoking and drugs in its advertising.

With the launch in January of its new print campaign, done in-house with the help of Swedish ad agency Paradiset, Diesel has created its own world that seems to be located somewhere between “Twin Peaks” and Tim Burton’s Gotham City.

The campaign consists of four photographs entitled “Gene Manipulation,” “The Room,” “Fat People” and “Church.” Obese men appear to be having the time of their lives in front of plates overflowing with hamburgers and french fries, a disconsolate-looking group of people watch videos by “Dalt Wisney,” and tanned musclemen in white bikinis work at high tech laboratory instruments. Included in the shots, sometimes as observers, are somewhat more conventional-looking people clad in jeanswear.

The ads were shot by Danish photographer Pierre Winther, and instead of models, are populated with an off-beat assortment of people scouted on the streets and in the gyms, bars and motorcycle clubs of Los Angeles.

“The campaign doesn’t have a text anymore. These are the Nineties, and the new generation doesn’t want to be told what to do, what to think,” said Maurizio Marchiore, director of advertising and communications for the company.”They don’t want to resemble their parents in any way, so that means no connection with the legends of the past — James Dean, the American Dream — all that has disappeared.”

The new campaign is being rolled out around the world, he said. The ads promote Diesel’s entire clothing collection rather than just its jeans line.

Diesel, which was founded in 1978 and is based in Vicenza in northern Italy, reported worldwide sales of $412 million in 1993, up 57 percent from the year before. Some 90 percent of its sales are generated by exports to 65 countries. Most of the Diesel product is produced in factories in or near Vicenza, while some 30 percent is sourced in foreign markets, but with an eye to keeping the same level of quality obtained at home, Marchiore said.

“Our product is a global product, and our public is pretty much the same around the world,” he added.

The company invested some $8.2 million in advertising and promotion last year, consisting of print and TV campaigns. This year, Diesel released its fifth TV spot, directed by Jorgen Lof. It’s slated to be aired on MTV worldwide.

Diesel has a subsidiary in New York, and a warehouse and showrooms in Miami and Los Angeles. Its U.S. ad budget for 1994 is $1 million. In the first six months, it is advertising in such publications as Details, Rolling Stone, Detour, Premiere, Sportswear International, In Fashion and Out.

Among Diesel’s U.S. accounts are Barneys New York, Urban Outfitters, Bloomingdale’s, Charivari, Detour, Boogie’s Diner, Macy’s East and Fred Segal. There are also plans to open a store in New York, Marchiore said.

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