Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Science Of Selling Yourself Hard

By Kara ter Morsche

In light of brand Jack Wills having images banned for being too sexual, we take a look at the companies who have been in the controversial pool for a long time, and how being on the cutting edge of imagery can help or condemn a brand.

Imagine you’re walking down a street, head in the clouds, when you spot a brazen 6ft image of two horses mating, or a slippery and naked woman, modesty only prevailed by a transparent perfume bottle. Granted, your attention would probably be engaged, but your reaction? That’s where the controversy lies.

On April 6th, 2011, cult preppy brand Jack Wills had 4 images from their spring catalogue banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for being overtly sexual and provocative. They join a long list of campaigns that have been branded unfit for public receival, and will most likely produce tamer photos in the months to come.

Many brands have dipped their toes in the sea of controversial advertising, but there are some that dive in without even taking their shoes off. These companies are defiant and confident enough to put their entire reputation on the line for one series of images, knowing the popularity of a brand can change instantaneously following a campaigns release.


United Colours of Benetton are a clothing company known for their continuous projection of shocking imagery, much of it related to the number of causes they support. ‘Benetton has a long history of attention to ethical values and involvement in social and cultural initiatives,’ says the Benetton press group, ‘It contributes to creating the image of a global enterprise that invests in research, is modern and projected towards the future, emphasising its principal and most important characteristic: uniqueness.’

The start of Benetton’s controversy began with their first campaign, sprung from their development of colour techniques on fabrics in the 60s. This, along with Luciano Benetton’s belief that communication should not be commissioned from outside the company, but conceived from within its heart, gave the group the idea to reflect the united colours of their clothing in the united colours of the world. Benetton wanted to change the purpose of their advertisements into more than that of simply promoting their product, but to images that represented company values. ‘A company that emphasises value and chooses to create value is no longer communicating with the consumer but with the individual,’ says the press group, ‘By entering the universe of values, the brand frees the product from the world of merchandise and manufacturing, and makes it a social being of its own.’

In these primary campaigns, people of varying sex and skin-tone were pictured together, integrated, energetic and happy. The slogan alongside read ‘all the colours of the world’, which was later developed into ‘United Colours of Benetton’ to become the brands’ trademark. This obviously provided some kind of controversy with the public, but in a positive way that helped to invigorate the anti-racial world.

However, following on from this, Benetton took a far more provocative approach to advertising. Getting photographer Oliviero Toscani on board, the new images negated any reference to the actual products and adopted a stereotype-subverting ethic through presenting harsh, provoking images. This began with a photograph of a war cemetery released in 1991 during the Gulf War; that was only published in one Italian newspaper as all the others refused to print it. The opposition was due to the company using death as an advertising subject, so in retaliation Benetton released their iconic ad of a new-born-baby, umbilical cord still attached. This was intended as an anthem to life but caused so much scandal that the posters were ordered to be taken down, and the picture was condemned by the Code of Advertising Practice Court due to not taking account of public sensitivity.

The baby ad eventually met a different fate though, winning a Swiss advertising prize. This, along with a steady climb in company profit, caused Benetton to ensure all of their future images were equally as controversial. They went on to produce images such as a black and a white horse mating, three hearts emblazoned with the words white, black and yellow, and close-ups of tattoos reading HIV positive.

Profits continued to rise until 2009, when net income stood at 122 million as opposed to the previous years’ 155. This shows that perhaps, controversy only carries a brand so far, and could explain the more tame images of recent the company have produced.


The high fashion brand Sisley, a division of the Benetton group, is renowned for their sexually provocative adverts. Contrary to the mission statement set by the United Colours of Benetton, Sisley does not try and incorporate values into their campaigns, and they are more concerned with portraying their revolutionary way of dressing compared with the standards of the time. It was in 1985 that Sisley veered away from the rest of the Benetton group and developed a strong individual identity. Their website maintains they are sensitive to the phenomena that attract the younger generations, and this has lead to an abundance of sexual references in their advertising. To create an edgy, on-the-cusp appeal, they have projected an image and a lifestyle that differentiates certain individuals from the crowd. They say that through their campaigns, they have created a kind of alternative reality that customers can identify parts of their personality in.

Stand out images from Sisley’s history have included a woman provocatively drinking milk from a cows udder, two women in a topless embrace, and a woman lying on a supermarket floor seductively placing a phallic shaped cucumber to her mouth. These images have always been met with differing views by the public and the media, ‘While I appreciate sultry imagery and can laugh at a cheeky message,’ said website ‘Fabsugar’ on the Sisley campaigns, ‘There is a fine line.’ It is this fine line that Sisley fearlessly treads, unapologetic for the explicit connotations of their imagery. ‘You must not mix up sexism with sexuality,’ Sisley’s advertising director, Paola Paoletti, told, ‘the woman in our ads is not a sexual object; she accepts the game of seduction. People can read into an ad what they want to, just like in life- either you can be a victim, or you can be someone who is making a strong sexual choice.’

However, even Sisley were appalled by the false ‘fashion junkie’ series that emerged under their brand name. Images surfaced of models appearing completely intoxicated, snorting a white dress laid out to appear as something far more sinister, while a credit card generously dusted with white powder lay in the foreground. This is perhaps the most iconic Sisley advertisement, yet spokespeople for the brand ensured the public that these pictures were false and were in no way connected with the brand. Making an effort to comment on every Internet article and blog post published on the issue, they wrote, ‘The allusion to drugs and alcohol is more than clear. We would like to clearly state that the Sisley brand (and the Benetton company) has nothing to do with these images and therefore we refuse to be linked with them.’

Sisley continued to create quite controversial ads following these happenings in 2007, although the more recent images are notably more submissive, and for the spring/ summer 2011 campaign, Sisley have turned to photographer Terry Richardson to create images that are more ironic and playful, deferring away from his hallmark image of profusely erotic and transgressive pictures. Sisley veering to a gentler branding again shows us that, perhaps, the Benetton group have experienced the reception that boundary pushing alone will no longer sell their products.

Tom Ford

World-renowned designer, Tom Ford, has been praised for turning around the fortune of the Gucci brand, and his personal line is successful worldwide. Yet adverts for his brand have proven extremely controversial, and some have even been banned. Despite this, his store on Madison Avenue beat sales budgets by 100% in the year after its opening in April 2007, and since their launches, both his eyewear and beauty collections have ranked in the top 3 brands at specialty stores worldwide.

The luxury Italian eyewear brand Marcolin, who collaborate with Tom Ford on his sunglasses range, also announced a 15.2% increase in turnover for 2010, reaching profits of 207.7 million Euros, which they credit much to the renewal of Fords contract until 2022.

One of the campaigns that sparked the most controversy for Tom Ford was a sunglasses ad that pictured a woman lying down, bright red-lipped with a mans finger in her mouth. This ad was banned in Italy by the ‘Institute for Advertising Self-Discipline’, as it was deemed vulgar and complacent about the degrading and abuse of women.

Also banned were ads from the Tom Ford perfume line, as they were seen as too boundary pushing, ridiculously cheap and demeaning. The images were overtly provocative, showing a naked, oiled-up woman, holding only the transparent perfume bottle to protect her dignity in close-up shots of intimate body parts. Had it not been for airbrushing, these images would have veered on pornography.

American Apparel

A company that has reaped both the benefits and problems of creating controversial advertising campaigns is American Apparel. The brand, that has been praised for their ethical production and input towards creating jobs in America, has come under fire for numerous issue-laden campaigns.

American Apparel creates their images in-house, and does not use input from ad agencies, retouchers, make-up artists or stylists. ‘Ever unpredictable, our ads feature the familiar faces and backsides of fans, friends and employees,’ states the company website, ‘our iconic ads reflect the diversity, individuality and independent spirit this company was founded on, with little regard for mainstream advertising trends.’ One of these ads was banned in 2009 for depicting a sexualised child who appeared to be around 16, despite the model being 22 at the time of shooting.

In 2009, American Apparel were sued by Woody Allen after creating advertisements that featured images of Allen from Oscar-winning Annie Hall, dressed as a Hasidic Jew, with a slogan reading ‘the high rabbi’. According to the Guardian, Allen condemned the poster as ‘sleazy and infantile’. The case was settled with Allen being awarded 5 million dollars. On his website, CEO of American Apparel Dov Charney wrote, ‘Common sense dictates that the billboard at issue here is not a simple advertisement. As a matter of law, no commercial transaction is proposed: no merchandise is shown or described, and no price is quoted even if the billboard is found to have the dual purpose of a commercial transaction and an expressive medium, First Amendment protection still attaches because the two elements are inextricably intertwined.’

This could explain why some of the most controversial advertisements don’t show the associated brands product’s in any way, as by creating a distinction between their creative expression and their sales pitch, they gain more lenience should the image be criticised, or the company sued.

The rest of American Apparels ads have had a continuous theme, showing girls and boys in various states of undress, often in provocative positions. This has lead to what Dov Charney has admitted is a ‘sexually charged’ atmosphere in the offices. He has been known to carry out board meetings in his underwear, and reportedly refers to female employees as sluts or whores. In defence of this, he told the New York Daily News that, ‘some people love sluts.’

However, this is not the most unsettling link between American Apparels racy adverts and Dov Charney, in 2011 a lawsuit was filed against him for allegedly sexually abusing a former employee. The woman in question alleged that when she was 18, Charney forced her repeatedly to have sex with him, and effectively held her prisoner in his home. She is suing him for £160 million. Numerous sexual allegations have been made against Charney in the past, but he has never been convicted. A spokesperson for the company told the New York Post that, ‘Concerning this case, we are confident that Ms Morales claims will be resolved fully in favour of the company.’

Despite such backlash against the sexual nature of the company’s advertisements, American Apparel has experienced a surge in popularity, reporting $545 million in total sales for 2008. They now have 260 stores worldwide, across 19 countries, and in 2008 were awarded Retailer of the Year at the Michael Awards.

Evidently, not all advertising is good advertising, and although creating controversial campaigns can positively influence a brand’s sales, it can do so for only so long. The negative repercussions are also vast, and often outweigh the benefits. However, some brands appear to be popular no matter how they advertise, which supports the idea that as long as you have a strong brand image and stick to it, success will come your way. So, whatever your reaction to that striking billboard, it is guaranteed to provide publicity for the brand. Controversial images will no doubt continue to be a staple of the advertising world, so we can either grin and bear it, or look and be fascinated by it. And after all, who doesn’t love a little danger.


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