Magazine ads use shock value by design

August 21, 1991|By Loretta Grantham | Loretta Grantham,Cox News Service

The very fact that you're reading this proves controversial fashion ads work.

This is publicity. And that's what such ads do best -- get free press and get folks talking.

You may not recall the specifics of a shocking ad 10 years from now, but you'll probably remember the name behind it: Benetton, Calvin Klein or Obsession. . . .

Fervor is focusing now on Benetton's fall/winter campaign, which includes six ads.

Under scrutiny are three: One shows a newborn baby, umbilical cord still attached; another depicts a nun and priest kissing; and the third features two children -- a white girl with a black boy whose hair is formed into devil-like horns.

Some Benetton store managers, such as Cathy Faber at The Gardens mall in West Palm Beach, Fla., said she has fielded public questions about the ads.

"People have asked me to define the overall meaning of the baby," Faber said. "And I've had people call about the nun and priest. The people who are calling are from Catholic organizations or from strict religious backgrounds. They won't shop in the store anymore. They feel Benetton has crossed the line."

And more and more fashion manufacturers are crowding that line.

"It's a harder sell because it has to be," media critic Mark Crispin Miller of Johns Hopkins University told The Boston Globe in April 1989. "You have to jolt, shock, break through -- or you're dead."

The shock-to-sell trend began in the '60s, said Dr. Porter Crowe, a humanities professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla.

"I can recall when miniskirts came along, and people looked more than twice. Then we started seeing ads of a gorgeous girl in a bathing suit holding a tire.

"Now, the trend is being actualized," said Crowe, mentioning Vanity Fair's August issue, on which pregnant Demi Moore posed nude. "That [picture] was enough to sell two or maybe three times more magazines. You can't get all the attention nowadays with images from the '50s."

No kidding. Today's readers, it seems, have gotten so acclimated to jarring images that firms have to jockey even harder for attention.

"They want you to stop and look," said Ann Stock, public relations vice president of the Bloomingdale's chain, about Benetton's baby ad. "They don't necessarily care one way or the other what the opinion is. And I did stop and look."

Whether readers will see these ads is the decision of magazine publishers -- one that they're hesitant to discuss.

"He's not answering those questions," said an Elle spokesman of publisher Larry Bernstein.

"There's nothing we could comment about," said Self publicist Heather Borden, "because we would be setting a precedent."

Self did, however, accept Benetton's baby ad (and a non-controversial Benetton ad showing leaves in oil) because "it was something that was appropriate for our readership," Borden said. "It's very natural."

Cosmopolitan, meanwhile, rejected the baby ad but accepted the nun/priest one, as did Seventeen, Elle and Parenting. Self and YM rejected the nun/priest. Essence and Child turned down both the baby and the black/white children.

Magazines that are running some of the six ads include GQ, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Vogue.

"I think a lot of it is a gamble," said a Cosmopolitan executive who refused to be identified. "It does increase media placement -- like the Vanity Fair cover -- without costing a penny."

"Among [the ads] is the absence of product," a Benetton company statement says. "Benetton is not trying to emphasize the beauty and the quality of its apparel, but rather is trying to capture the interest of people, even the most blase and inattentive. The objective is to provoke reflection and break through the barrier of indifference."

Benetton, whose worldwide 1991 advertising budget is $78 million, has taken heat before for an ad featuring condoms (1991) and another showing a black woman breast-feeding a white baby (1989).

But Benetton isn't the first to create a stir. Throughout the '80s, Calvin Klein's ads for underwear, fragrance and clothing have featured hints of homosexuality (1983) and nudity (1985-present).

It all goes back to 1980, when 15-year-old Brooke Shields proclaimed that "nothing" came between her and her Calvin Klein jeans.

Six years later, an Adweek survey judged a shot of six semi-nude bodies advertising Calvin Klein underwear as the year's most popular print ad.

For most firms that embrace the grab-'em-and-shock-'em strategy, the gamble will pay off.

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