Mike Fromowitz
Mar 21, 2014

Shocking fashion ads: Too scandalous to be viewed?

Fashion ad campaigns are sensational, provocative, outrageous and scandalous. Creative? Very. You cannot not notice them. This is all about money, marketing and business sense, and these racy campaigns achieve all the attention they’re after.  

Shocking fashion ads: Too scandalous to be viewed?

Sex, fashion, and advertising have always been intertwined, but it’s interesting to see how ads continue to challenge the industry’s level of acceptance.

The impetus for this post was a recent visit to several of Asia’s largest shopping malls (Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok, KL, Manila) on behalf of a client. I found myself staring at signage and billboards rife with nudity and sexual imagery. I don’t have a problem with nudity, but the more I stared at some of these images I found myself wondering what was the point of it all? In many cases, what did some of this imagery have to do with clothes and fashion? 

For decades, the fashion industry has always been at the forefront of art and design pushing the envelope when it comes to marketing. They are amongst the bravest of marketers, often willing to give their brands an extra shot in the arm through controversy. In the last decade, sexual boundaries continue to be pushed as never before. Some of the ads I found were too obscene or strange to even show in this post. Regardless of our opinions on good taste and sexuality, the reality is, sex has always been a part of our common experience and will continue to be. Sex is here to stay In advertising.


Love them or hate them, fashion advertising campaigns are becoming more innovative and taking even bigger risks, to create more ‘buzz’ and controversy. Pushing the envelope to new limits by exploiting sex and skin in ads is a recurring theme in fashion advertising. Fashion brand marketers are out to spark attention, negative or positive, so the brand’s name is seen and never forgotten. 

The "Philippine Volcanoes" (National Rugby Team) were back on
sexy ads for Bench Body in the summer of 2012.

In current ad campaigns, a few brands are testing boundaries of taste and decency like never before. They employ photos that are incestuous and sexually explicit; that use underage models in suggestive situations; that provoke with sexually violent situations; that create friction by manipulating religious and political figures in highly controversial poses, all for the sake of selling high fashion apparel. Regardless, in the fashion ad space, all ads are good ads. 

Sex has been used to sell fashion for decades. Famous brands such as Calvin Klein and Guess were among the earliest and most relentless pushers of the sexuality envelope. Three decades ago, Calvin Klein triggered debate, and a publicity bonanza,  when 15-year-old Brooke Shields purred, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” 

If Freud were living today, I wonder if he could decipher some of the images used by Emporio Armani, JBS (Men’s Underwear), Diesel, BCBG, French Connection, Axe (deodorant), Sisley, American Apparel and Gucci.

More recently, trend-setting designer Tom Ford has pushed the envelope to its limits. Dolce & Gabbana’s ad series in recent issues of men's magazine GQ show several men in suits staring at a naked man lying on the floor while a fellow nearby fiddles with his pants zipper. In other ads men pose bare-chested, pants down, hands inside underwear, hands on the crotch. It seems the more skin you show, the better. It's all about being edgy, and being edgy is acceptable in fashion. It's getting harder and harder to get people's attention, and edgy is what creative people must do to get your attention.

Why use sex? Most likely at some point your clothing choices have been dictated by the possibility of having sex. People who love fashion see it as a means to express themselves, to indicate their taste and style by way of a designer or a name brand, and of course, to show their individuality.  On the other hand, people who are not fashion-conscious see it as an expression of vanity. Thus, when they see fashion models whose anatomy protrudes further than their own, they say: "That's not attractive! It's crazy!" etc. etc.

Controversy sells, especially when it explicitly elicits sex and violence, because it gets people talking. Many brands are taking controversial risks while others are successfully pulling out all the stops to create a lasting affect the consumer’s mind. Controversy is often stimulated by taboo-type activities, indulging into the forbidden. They disguise sex as innuendo, humor, or artistic expression, and hope the shock factor will work magic for their products. Often, clients and agencies defend them as "edgy" fantasy scenarios.

Brand name advertising campaigns are pushing their limits, and as some are finding, they are bordering on pornography and just too taboo for mass communication channels. There's a fine line, and more often than not these brands are taking some major risks, stepping way over the line. And with each passing year, they are getting more blatant. 

The Internet over the last 20 years has produced a direct line for much stronger, graphic sexual material to be seen by consumers, and they're responding to it. “There is a definite sexualization of young girls,” says Marc Gobé, president of Emotional Branding LLC. “They are extremely social and connected, more than any generation before, having been born in the technology cauldron. Tweens are a lot more mature today because of technology, and they clearly understand the sexual proposition of the ads they see.” As the rules around sex and consumers become more relaxed, you can guarantee that sex will become a bigger part of our advertising landscape.

Overall, some consumers are quick to argue and rebel against the controversial messages. The thing these brands have in common is that they all received complaints that upset varying members in the public.  Secretly consumers all love a taboo message or correlation. Then again, everyone loves a little bit of controversy and this industry is certainly no stranger to that area. Perhaps many of the adverts have just gotten too scandalous to be viewed in public. 

Sure, some of these advertisements are very uncomfortable to look at, but many are meant for fashion magazines and not mainstream media. Tom Ford’s campaigns are amongst the most complained about advertisement ever and the Calvin Klein fragrance campaign was removed from billboards.

The above lingerie ad in Hankou, China, shows a female in a bra and
underwear squatting with her legs open. The image reflects the changing
norms among public display of skin. There are more lingerie stores in 
Chinese cities than anywhere else in the world.

Still, I find it interesting and surprising how little the clothes are actually shown in the advertisements that are churned out every year. While I can see how some of these advertisements caused scandal, others are very well done and thought out. The fashion industry is about pushing boundaries in clothes, so why not push them in advertising to reflect the brand?

The fashion industry has mastered the ability to sell clothing and accessories by using attractive models and sending sexual messages to consumers. If done correctly, these ads can be stylish, sensual, liberating and artistic, but as some fashion marketers have shown, an ad can turn distasteful, sexist and obscene. Commodifying women, especially “sexy” perceptions of women, can create a false illusion of perfection that seems glamorous. Men want her. Woman want to be her. 

As ads in magazines and billboards get sexier and sexier, family groups are voicing their outrage at the content that is larger-than-life. The main complaint is that it is suggestive of sex and is inappropriate especially for impressionable youth. Marketing experts say although many ads are pushing the provocative boundaries, they have been sexy for a while and are not necessarily getting worse. Of course, Nobody wants to pay for advertising that people don't notice. We all know that when it comes to advertising, sex sells—but at what point do we draw the line between art and pornography or tasteful and offensive?

The regulatory agencies in Asia ensure that the public doesn't see everything. But the reality is that target audiences are much more widely accepting of risqué ads than they have ever been, which is why magazines are not rejecting them. Of course, they also enjoy the revenue they bring.

Mike Fromowitz













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