NEW YORK — Some like it hot. Some like it plain. And some like it downright weird.

Steamy, sweaty, even raunchy images have been used for at least 20 years to sell jeans and build brands. Calvin Klein and Guess have built numerous immediately recognizable image campaigns using the hottest models and biggest photographers.

But does sex still work as a hook for denim?

Other big names, such as Levi’s and Lee, focus on a kinder, gentler combination of lifestyle and product, including Lee’s “the brand that fits” TV ads and Levi’s animated TV commercials featuring thought-provoking scenarios that don’t mention jeans at all.

And then there’s the strange. In that camp is the Italian-based Diesel, which sets up surreal situations in laboratories, living rooms and trailer homes. There’s also Joop Jeans, based in Germany, whose nonproduct ads have raised eyebrows since they had their debut last year. One of its first ads showed a child on a leash, with copy that read: “A child is the ultimate pet.” Another showed fish swimming, with copy that said: “In the uterus of love, we are all blind cavefish.”

Paul Marciano, president of Guess and a standard-bearer for sexy — or “sensual,” as he prefers — denim advertising, divides the field into two areas.

“Totally boring or totally sexy,” he said. “Denim is really attached to young, trendy people, and sexy is definitely attention-getting. Even if we don’t see that much product in the ads, the idea is to be there with the current attitude, the current model, the current location.

“But it’s also an eternal image. Think of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties — there’s always someone you can name who was wearing denim. Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift. I remember very specifically Natalie Wood in a movie where she was wearing a denim shirt slightly unbuttoned, and a white skirt. It was pretty provocative.”

Marciano has used various models over the years to evoke that sultry, glamorous image, most recently with the Russian-born Larissa. Guess’s advertising is consistent across product categories, from sportswear to innerwear to swimwear. Marciano noted, however, that he can create advertising that has a foot in both camps.

“Take that insert we did for Elle magazine this month,” he said. “Retailers approached us because they wanted us to do some kind of promotion for back-to-school. So it focused on product, but we also had to make it playful, because that’s part of our image now. That’s what people expect from us.”

Neil Kraft, senior vice president and creative director at Calvin Klein Inc., said the company doesn’t intend to change its sexy advertising. In fact, the current denim ads featuring Kate Moss and Michael Bergin are reminiscent of the Brooke Shields ads of the early Eighties.

“We don’t think that the fundamental reason a person buys our jeans is to go work on a farm,” he said. “The people who are buying our jeans are wearing them to look attractive. Yes, this is the Nineties and there is AIDS, which is deadly serious. But people still want to look sexy.”

Kraft noted that Klein’s denim advertising is concentrated in its top 20 markets, which are urban, and that the majority of it is outdoors. The current denim campaign, shot by Wayne Maser, recently broke here on bus sides, and will be seen in Los Angeles on Sunset Avenue billboards.

Similar-looking ads will start to show up in fashion magazines this fall.

But there’s another group of denim advertisers who say the sexy look has become overexposed.

Hillary Peterson, marketing manager for women’s jeans at Levi Strauss & Co., said that after discussing advertising with numerous focus groups, the company decided to go with a more abstract ad campaign. Created by Foote, Cone & Belding, it uses illustrated 30-second segments, without a model.

The ads are cartoon vignettes dealing with women’s issues. In one, entitled “Woman Losing Her Insecurity,” an 18-wheeler is shown barreling down a dark, deserted urban street, terrorizing a lone female motorcyclist. Trapped by a detour sign, the cyclist uses the dead end to fool the truck into driving off the highway. As the truck plummets to its doom, the cyclist jauntily beeps her horn. The other two are entitled: “Woman Getting What She Wants,” and “Woman Breaking the Mold.”

The ads are intended to deepen the emotional connection the company has with the consumer.

“There’s no doubt that sexy advertising is attention-getting,” said Peterson. “But a lot of what we were feeling is that there is so much of that out there, we wanted to own something completely different. What we do is very projectable.”

“We don’t feel [sex] is necessary,” said Mike Robertson, director of marketing and communications for Lee Brand, based in Merriam, Kan. “It’s not the image of Lee. You do have to have a lifestyle campaign that is aspirational and raises brand awareness, but you can do that in other areas.”

Lee’s next print campaign, which will target 18-to-25-year-old women, will focus on the comfort of the product by showing men and women in real-life situations — moving furniture, painting, riding a bike — with the tag line “Lee Fit Check.”

Lee’s nonthreatening approach also has to do with the fact that it is a subsidiary of VF Corp.

“VF is a very conservative company, and we are a very conservative company,” Robertson said.

Michelyn Camen, vice president of marketing and licensing for Sun Apparel, which launched two new lines this year — Code Bleu and X-Am — said the company made the distinct decision not to go the sex route with the print ad campaigns for both lines.

“Sex still sells, but it’s a message people have become anesthetized to,” she said. For the mass market X-Am brand, Camen said: “We know teens are savvy and sophisticated, but we wanted to be responsible in terms of our advertising. So we used celebrities. There’s a sexiness to it without being promiscuous.” The X-Am ads feature MTV veejay Daisy Fuentes and skateboarding star Muggsy Bogues.

For Code Bleu, which is targeted to an older customer and goes into better department stores, Camen said, “We wanted visually striking ads that brought a smile to people’s faces.” The ads are black-and-white photographs with bright purple accents.

“The market is so cluttered with [sexy] images,” she said. “People don’t want to live in a beer commercial.” Marithé & Francois Girbaud hasn’t used national advertising for two years. This fall, it launched a small print campaign in Spin and Details magazines that represents the first part of a much larger campaign for the brand, which is also owned by VF. The campaign was created by Berlin, Wright & Cameron here.

“We felt the customer we were trying to appeal to — the 18-to-25-year-old consumer — has grown up with all that sexy advertising, and somehow it’s not conducive to the spirit of the time,” said Andy Bates, vice president of marketing and research at Girbaud here.