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Bold Advertising or Harmful Normalisation

One of the oldest marketing adage is the notion that “sex sells”. While this seems to be a contemporary idea, it dates back one hundred and fifty years, starting with Pearl Tobacco in the 1870s, the first brand to print naked women on the cover of their cigarette packets to bump-up sales. It’s safe to say that use of sexual imagery attracts the primal eye. Brands have been exploring different angles from subtle sexual innuendo to bold images, some of which have been well received and some bashed by media - so what is it that blurs the line between fashion and vulgarity?


The Calvins Controversy


In recent years, brands have been notoriously using sex to draw up attention to their products and stir up a debate. Calvin Klein is one such brand. They are always in the eye of controversy and popularly known for their bold advertisements. From the very beginning in the 1980s from a topless Kate Moss to Jamie Dornan rolling around in the sand, Klein has been a trend setter. And yet again, with their #mycalvins campaign featuring Klara Kristin, Calvin Klein has created an uproar in the fashion industry. The campaign includes an ‘upskirt’ picture of the 22-year old actress with the caption ‘I flash in #mycalvins’. The mentioned ad was not only perceived as outrageous but has also been accused of glamorising something as odious as sexual harrassment.

After only four months, there had been over 4.5 million interactions between celebrities, influencers, and the brand-posted content.

Calvin Klein's social media presence has grown dramatically as a result of this campaign. Since their launch in February 2014, they have gained 2.2 million Facebook followers, 1.8 million Instagram followers, and 1 million Twitter followers.It reached a global audience of 469 million fans, resulting in 23.5 million fan interactions. The brand even expanded its advertising to Tinder in July.



Balenciaga and bondage bears


A recent Balenciaga ad campaign featured children holding bags shaped like teddy bears wearing bondage gear, futhermore, the children were photographed near wine glasses and other trinkets, while holding plush bears with battered eyes that were dressed in fishnet tops and leather harnesses. The campaign image also included documents referencing Supreme Court cases on child pornography hence public was quick to accuse Balenciaga of sexualising children and promoting child sexual abuse. Their creative strategy backfired to an extent that they had to issue an official apology as well as pull the advertisement together. To add to the series of unfortunate events Balenciaga is not only facing a $25m lawsuit but also Kim Kardashian, a longtime partner of the fashion house, called out the company for its offensive advertising and mentioned that she would reconsider her relationship with the brand. This campaign having received a lot of hate and backlash caused damage to both the company’s finances and brand image.


Is a bold move a good move?


The reason for these brands’ incredible popularity are their smart marketing strategy and advertising campaigns. Brands often use sexual ads to draw attention to their products. Through these ads, they stay in their target segments' minds and often succeed in building a bold image for the brand, which suits the young generations very well. All the popular brands we know of today, rely on a very specific marketing strategy called controversial marketing. Controversial marketing refers to advertising or promotion strategies that aim to generate interest and attention by stirring up debate, dividing opinions, or challenging social norms and values. Such marketing can be intentional or accidental, but it usually relies on the power of shock, surprise, or humor to catch people's attention.


Sex has been such a “hush hush” topic for decades which adds to the allure of it. Therefore even the slightest reference to sex is enough to grab a persons attention and isnt that the goal of these campaigns. Researchers have found an interesting theory called The Peacock effect: There is something in nature known as the "signalling theory." In order to attract a female to mate with, a male peacock will display his vibrant fan of covert feathers in a ritual. This suggests that one needs to be bold in order to firstly reach people and then convert them to consumers.


In conclusion, the concept of "sex sells" is a controversial topic that has been used by marketers and advertisers for decades. While it is true that sexual imagery and innuendo can capture attention and generate interest in a product, it is important to recognize the potential negative consequences of using this tactic. Objectification of individuals, perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, and normalization of unhealthy behaviors are just a few of the issues that can arise when sex is used to sell products.


Controversy equals eyeballs and eyeballs equal dollars." - Les Moonves.

This quote, attributed to former CBS CEO Les Moonves, reflects the motto held closely marketers that controversial advertising can be effective in generating attention and driving sales. However, it also suggests a willingness to prioritize profit over ethical considerations and potentially engage in behavior that could be harmful or offensive to certain audiences. So has controversy just become a convenience?


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