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When Ads Go Strange: Calvin Klein Conducts Kiddie Porn Auditions


The jeans maker claimed the ads depicted the "independent spirit" of young people.

The more shocking, the better. If Calvin Klein (PVH) had an advertising motto, that would have to be it.

The company wasn't afraid to stop you in your tracks in 1980, when its ad featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields seductively telling the camera that nothing came between her and her Calvins. It didn't mind shocking the uber-trendy shoppers in New York's Soho district last year with a giant billboard depicting a threesome on a couch (along with a fourth member of the apparent orgy on the floor). And the fashion house has even started stirring things up online with a shocking men's underwear ad for mature audiences only on Hulu.

But in all the years of scandalous ads, nothing got the public going quite like the 1995 campaign that came to be known as "kiddie porn."

The setup was this: A photographer shoots young male and female models in what appears to be a wood-paneled basement. In a creepy, Mickey Rourke-like voice, the man behind the camera asks the sometimes scantily clad models uncomfortable questions.

"Do you think you could rip that shirt off of you?" he asks a young man, who promptly does as asked. "That's a nice body, do you work out?"

Borderline pornographic? Yes. Exploitation of underage kids? Sure looked like it. Offensive? To just about everyone.

Effective? Absolutely.

Calvin Klein is a master of shock, awe, and sales. "Jeans are about sex," Klein himself once said.

The company uses its own internal creative team to craft its campaigns, and it spends big bucks on top fashion photographers to shoot them. The 1995 campaign and last year's controversial threesome billboard were shot by Steven Meisel, who photographed Madonna for her 1992 book Sex and who regularly works for Vogue and other fashion magazines.

The provocative basement ads, which were seen on television, in print, and on city buses, generated immediate backlash upon their release in the summer of 1995. Parent groups and child welfare organizations raised questions about the age of the participants in the campaign, many of whom looked to be under 18.

Retailers joined the protest following the populist uproar. Dayton and Hudson (now Target (TGT)) asked the company to pull the ads, while other big retailers including Macy's (M) were forced to contend with picketing protesters.

In late August, the drumbeat of outrage became too much for Calvin Klein to bear and it pulled the ad campaign. In an interview with Newsweek, Klein said he was "shocked" by the reaction and he insisted the campaign had been misunderstood. "People didn't get that it's about modern young people who have an independent spirit and do the things they want to and can't be told or sold," he said. "My intention was not to create a controversy, in spite of what some people think."

But the controversy didn't end there. Prompted by a deluge of complaints, the Department of Justice opened up an investigation into whether or not the company violated child pornography laws. By the end of November, however, the lawyers dropped the probe after seeing proof the models were all adults.

Calvin Klein declined a request for comment about the campaign and the controversy.

Albeit brief, the ad campaign had impact. Calvin Klein Jeanswear had been formed in 1994, when Calvin Klein spun it off (Calvin Klein still handled design and marketing for CK Jeanswear). Daniel Gladstone, then the president of the new company, told the Daily News Record that Calvin Klein Jeanswear had net sales of $462 million in 1995. "On top of that, there were about $200 million worth of orders that we just couldn't fulfill," he said.

Klein may have believed the campaign was misunderstood, but that never stopped him from greenlighting more advertising efforts that step outside the boundaries of propriety. Last year, when New Yorkers complained about the racy foursome sex ad in Soho, the company chose to replace it with a photograph of a female model walking out of the water in a red string bikini.

"After Orgy Ad Fiasco, Calvin Klein Tones Down Racy SoHo Billboard...Sort Of," read the Daily News headline after the switch. Anything to keep them talking.
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