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NEW YORK — Go sexy or go underground?

This story first appeared in the July 17, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For years, denim companies sold millions of jeans by photographing the sexiest girl they could find in the tightest jeans they could get her into and splashing their images in ads in scores of magazines. In recent years, a few smaller, niche denim brands without big ad budgets, such as Seven; Paper, Denim & Cloth, and Citizens of Humanity, decided to take a more underground route, getting their jeans into the hands of stylists who outfitted celebrities, who were then photographed for the pages of magazines such as In Style and Vogue.

Companies take many directions in marketing jeans today. Some use sexy advertising to seduce the customer, while others employ humor. A few go back to the cowboy imagery of yesteryear, while smaller brands often go underground in their approach.

“I think things go through cycles,” said Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird & Partners, the New York ad agency that does campaigns for Gap and Donna Karan International. “In the last few years, jeans became a fashion item and became part of the fashion look. The emergence of Seven and Paper has become part of the cult-craze phenomenon rather than a designer brand phenomenon. That’s been very much the edge and newness in jeans.”

Laird said during the last few years, denim marketing has been very much celebrity driven.

“Cameron Diaz in In Style wearing Seven, Habitual or Paper. That’s taken the leadership position for the past seven years,” he said. “A decade ago it was Polo Jeans, Calvin Klein and DKNY Jeans. The edge has been in small, niche brands. We’re coming out of that cycle.”

Still, Laird believes sexy ads still work.

“You still have to have some sort of sex appeal and desire,” he said. “You can’t take it all away and make it overly conceptual. Remember that Buffalo commercial Levi’s did for the Super Bowl? What were they trying to tell me? They were trying to do this conceptual thing and it was hard to understand what the message was. Whether you’re Gap, Levi’s, Guess, Juicy, whoever you are, everybody has to have a point of view. When it becomes generic, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.”

Marketers agree that it’s imperative for advertising to reflect the brand.

“I think the most effective way to market jeans depends on the personality of the brand,” said Kim Vernon, senior vice president, global advertising and communications, at Calvin Klein Inc. “Some brands, like Diesel, have never used sexy advertising, they use humor. For Calvin Klein, going back to Brooke Shields, sexy is good. Sometimes it’s more subtle than others, but Calvin has always been a sexy, modern company and what we do well. It will always be different than what Diesel, Polo or Tommy Hilfiger does.

“Large brands like ours have enough volume, so we’re able to advertise. We overlay that with grassroots marketing, and jeans contests at Urban Outfitters, for example.”

She said the contests expose the jeans to an entirely different audience that may not shop in Federated Department Stores. She said she also works with celebrities in product placement, and stars such as Adrien Brody and Justin Timberlake wear CK Jeans.

However, ad executives surveyed believe that after years of groundbreaking denim campaigns from companies such as Guess and Calvin Klein Jeans, nothing appears to have taken hold of the public’s fascination, and they think denim advertising is at a standstill.

“I think fashion advertising, in general, is ready for a new breakthrough,” said Neil Kraft, president of Kraftworks New York, an ad agency. “Print is a limited medium. I’m not convinced it works with the under-25 crowd. Innovation will come from an Internet company or an amazing viral marketing campaign or an incredible TV campaign.”

He cited two Calvin Klein TV commercials — Marky Mark in his skivvies and Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein Jeans — that had huge impact.

“Because you have TV, there’s a much bigger range,” said Kraft. “Sex always sells. It’s not going to go away.”

Kraft cited Miss Sixty for having the sexiest ads today. But overall, he said none of the denim ads really stand out.

“The biggest disaster, which has been a 10-year train wreck, is Levi’s,” said Kraft. “Wrangler has been innocuous. The thing about Lee is they should be the ultimate cowboy jeans. The new hot brands, the Sevens of the world, have done it 99 percent through p.r. The right girl walking down the street is still pretty good.”

He said Levi’s is the “classic American icon brand and they tried to be ultrafashionista.”

“It’s so wrong. They should market themselves as the great American icon brand,” he said.

Kraft said since jeans are such a commodity business, companies have tried to push the creative envelope.

“There’s a certain limit to how sexy you can go,” and Calvin Klein hit that limit 10 years ago, he recalled. “The most innovative brand is Diesel, which is leading the pack.”

Still, Kraft believes that advertising generally runs its course.

“All advertising is kind of cyclical,” he said. “You end up in a lull where no one is doing anything cool. They try, but they don’t try too hard. We’re in a bad retail climate. We’re in an ad lull, too. This is the time it makes the most sense to be out there. Nobody besides Diesel and Calvin Klein are doing anything remotely interesting.”

Advertising executives maintain that no matter what her age, the female customer cares about how she looks in a pair of jeans and advertising should reflect that.

“A lot of [denim advertising] has to do with sex,” said Mike Toth, president and chief creative director of Toth Brand Imaging, a Concord, Mass.-based ad agency. “The first thing a girl does is look at her figure [when trying on jeans]. It’s just about being sexy. All my clients want sexy ads. It’s less about explicit sex. It’s more about implied sex. It’s about being themselves, their desires, their dreams — it’s less about the obvious.

“The interpretation [of sexy] today is a lot more intellectual than Neanderthal sex, as we described it in the Eighties. It can be a girl looking confident, she’s photographed from the right position and she looks fabulous in the jeans. And there may not be a guy in the picture.”

Toth said denim advertising is in a stalemate. He said big denim brands like Levi’s have difficulty appealing to juniors and Wrangler hasn’t tried to keep up.

David Lipman, chairman and creative director of Lipman, the New York ad agency, said, “I think the jeans category has forgotten what image is all about.” He said Diesel had some great advertising, “But it’s not what it was. It’s hit or miss. It’s not clear to me and it had such a strong vocabulary. In the Nineties, the Calvin Klein Jeans ads were brilliant, with Kate Moss and Marky Mark.

“It has to be done from the brand to give it real meaning. It needs to be consistent. Levi’s ads are so…commercial. Calvin was commercial, but cool and commercial, and sexy.”

Some brands seem to have been able to walk the fine line between being cool and commercial.

“Seven’s done it. They’re really cool, but they want to keep it a modest business,” said Lipman. “Nowadays, you don’t even notice Guess. In the old days, you always understood it and looked forward to it.”

He said Guess ads reflected Americana, Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe. “But you have to keep it going, evolving it and strengthening it. It’s the same thing, but less than what it was,” said Lipman.

He said it’s imperative for jeans companies to work on developing the idea behind their brands.

“People wear jeans…it’s a statement about who they really are in the most casual environment,” he added. “Jeans are a staple in our wardrobe. They need it to be romanced. It’s how you really market it.”

One ad exec pointed out that teens today don’t want to wear the same style as their parents.

“Kids today want to create their own brands,” said Donny Deutsch, chief executive officer of Deutsch Inc., the New York ad agency. “Their parents may feel fondly about CK and Guess, but the kids want to forge their own brands. They relate to advertising that’s sexually overt. Have you seen MTV lately? It’s all T&A. Teenagers want some sort of boy meets girl, boy meets boy. That resonates with them. Jeans advertising has always fit into the culture. It mirrors what is going on at the time.”

According to Deutsch, “In the Seventies it was Jordache and the crazy disco-drug era. The early Eighties brought Brooke Shields who was very symbolic of the Reagan era, and late Eighties brought Tommy Hilfiger and a back-to-basics, real-family sentiment. The late Nineties brought raw sexuality, Versace, Gucci and an overt sexual image.

“Today there’s a denim identity crisis,” said Deutsch, adding that since the start of the 21st century, there hasn’t been an overwhelming mood in denim advertising. “In the early 2000s, they’re trying to sort itself out. The challenge for jeans manufacturers is the money is in the very young. In the past, the consumer chose a brand and was loyal to it. Today, young consumers have seven to eight different brands in their wardrobe. Nobody is jeans loyal.”

Deutsch said that presents a problem for classic brands. “Kids want the newest thing. The reality is the Baby Boomer buys new jeans every two to three years, but the fashion customer buys a few pairs a year,” he said.

Deutsch believes Lee and Wrangler have become private labels for the mass market.

“Their imagery is nowhere,” he said. “They’ll be obliterated if a store brings in its own brand.”

Then there are those ad execs who believe that different age groups have different creative needs.

“I really think it [advertising] depends on who’s buying the jeans and what age group,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, co-chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, a New York ad agency. “If you look at kids in high school and college, what’s aspirational for them is much different from those 30 years and older.”

He said in targeting teens, “you have to find out the aspirational trigger for whatever that market may be, whether it’s skateboarding, video games or certain heroes they have.”

“Kids are much more marketing focused,” Kirshenbaum said. “Their radar is up a little. A lot of influence comes from music, sports and the street trend. Denim advertising is always evolving. Kids today still follow, but they follow in a more independent way.”

Mark Gobé, president of Desgrippes Gobé, a brand consultancy and author of “Emotional Branding,” believes there are two camps of jeans wearers. There’s the utilitarian side of jeans, those worn by the older generation, and there are young people using jeans to make a statement and who want to stand out among their peers. He said Gen Y wears jeans as a sexual expression of who they are and how they view the world.

“Jeans communication is stuck and has not changed,” said Gobé. “They’re still using provocative sexual images. It doesn’t address the psychological, political or ironic view of Generation Y. The connection is not there.”

Gobé believes “Diesel is doing a totally brilliant job talking to a younger generation.”

Still, he believes sexy advertising will always be in demand, but it’s not the same as it was in the Seventies.

“Sexual advertising has made a huge statement,” said Gobé.

Recalling the denim ads of the Seventies and Eighties, Gobé said the sexual attitude in jeans advertising was made to express women’s sexual freedom.

“The point made by youth was the need to express their independence at the time and their sexual preferences,” he said. “It was a huge idea for women to show their independence. The message was extremely powerful and relevant. Younger generations are passed that. They’re reacting to sex and humor. They’re not taking it so seriously.

“If you want to speak to kids, you can’t preach to them. You can’t say, ‘We know what you need.’ Kids want to know you’re understanding what’s deep and cool and have a sense of communication that’s right. You can’t buy coolness.”

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