In 2011, Benetton received a threat from the Vatican itself when they released a photo manipulation of then Pope Benedict XVI snogging Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb. The image was part of the brand’s Unhate campaign which featured prominent leaders kissing their ‘enemies’ on the lips. The picture of the supreme pontiff was later removed from the campaign but the others, which featured figures like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, were left intact.
The Benetton campaign is just one more in a long line of shocking fashion ad campaigns. While most feature skinny models posing in front of uninspired backgrounds, every once in a while there are brands that enjoy ruffling some feathers with their marketing.
Here are some of the most jaw-dropping fashion ad campaigns from all times.
Marc Jacobs’ Instagram before Instagram
Designer Marc Jacobs paired with photographer Juergen Teller to create a series of ads with a very identifiable aesthetic, a style that would fit right in with today’s Instagram crowd. Keep in mind that this was in 2002, way before the social network was launched in 2010.
Perhaps the most iconic one is the one shot with Sofia Coppola (one of Jacobs’ besties) for the Marc Jacobs Perfume. Since then, the director has collaborated on other occasions with the designer which include a commercial for another perfume in 2013 and the fall 2015 campaign which also featured Winona Ryder and Cher, among other celebrities.
Gucci’s Iconic ‘Trimming’
Nowadays Tom Ford is well known for his use of blatant sexuality in his campaigns, but back in 1990 when he joined Gucci, the young designer was relatively unknown and nobody expected what was about to hit them.
One of his most memorable campaigns was for the Spring/Summer 2003 collection. Ford joined forces with none other than fashion photography legend Mario Testino to create images that were filled with references to fetishism. They all raised eyebrows, but the one that took the cake featured model Carmen Kass showing off her pubic hair trimmed into the shape of a G. Subtle. The ad was banned everywhere.
American Apparel’s Porn Chic
Much like other brands mentioned on this list, American Apparel’s (RIP) ads were deliberately provocative but unlike the others, went for a more ‘realistic’ look (or ‘raunchier’ depending on whom you ask).
The photographs were heavily criticised for almost invariably featuring skinny hipsters who seemed to have forgotten half of their outfit at home (or in somebody else’s bedroom). At the same time, they were praised for their lack or airbrushing and their fresh take on the type of models they showcased. American Apparel rarely worked with professional and often casted people right off the street. Whenever they didn’t work with Joe from the shop at the mall, they went for underground picks like drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race and porn stars like Sasha Grey.
Unfortunately, the positive effect was only temporary as the hyper-sexualised style was only criticised even more when stories of the brand’s founder Dov Charney’s less-than-lovely lifestyle were brought to light.
Abercrombie & Fitch 90’s (Lack of) Clothes
In the late 90’s, American Brand Abercrombie & Fitch caused quite a stir when they decided to ‘spice up’ their marketing campaigns. With the help of famed photographer Bruce Weber, the new images of the company where ‘racy’ to say the least.
The concept was simple, photos of posh-looking models wearing very little clothes — literally nothing at times. Some of the images were so provocatives that they could’ve easily been confused for erotica or soft-core porn. Apparently, the company’s creative team only attended the ‘sex sells’ class of their marketing program.
Needless to say, the ads provoked outrage amongst parents – but were received quite enthusiastically by the hormone-riddled teen audience they were aiming at. The ads were not only criticised for being too sexual but also for a serious lack of diversity.
Nowadays the brand is nowhere near as edgy as it used to be (and its CEO’s comments regarding overweight people didn’t do anything to change this) but we have to admit that selling clothes through nudity, is pure genius.
Note: Interested in marketing fails? Then check out some of the worst in recent years.
Chanel Nº 5’s Mini Blockbusters
The next campaign on our list is for another perfume, this time the mythical Chanel Nº 5. When a brand spends between $20 and $25 million in marketing alone it is worth a mention. The short movies we know nowadays started being produced in the 70’s, when Ridley Scott directed the then face of the fragrance, Catherine Deneuve. From Chanel to Alien, who knew?
The current face of Chanel Nº 5 is Lily-Rose Depp (yes, Johnny Depp’s daughter) and in 2012 Brad Pitt became the first male spokesperson. Remember that one? What was that about? Audrey Tautou’s Orient Express fantasy from 2009 is also a worthy entry but for this list, we’ve decided to highlight the one from 2004 with Nicole Kidman.
The actress joined forces once more with her Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann and Brazilian stud Rodrigo Santoro to promote the perfume by creating a three-minute trailer for a sappy movie that was never meant to exist. The project called No. 5 the Film allegedly took a whopping $102 million to make.
CK One’s Androgyny
Calvin Klein is also no stranger to controversial advertising. They were already playing the game way back in 1981 when Brooke Shields confessed to the world that ‘nothing came between her and her Calvins’ — she was 15.
But the ads I’ve decided to highlight are the ones from the 90’s lead by then barely-legal Kate Moss. Why? Well, basically because they dictated the look of the decade. Calvin Klein launched the British model into superstardom and in return, she turned them into THE brand of the decade.
The ads were often accused of being overtly sexual (even accusations of child porn were made) but the one we’ve decided to highlight was the original campaign for CK One which managed to perfectly capture the grungy-androgynous-dangerously-thin vibe of the 90’s.
Yves Sant Laurent’s Bares it All
When Laurent released his first fragrance for men POUR HOMME back in 1971, he decided to promote the perfume by posing for the famed photographer Jeanloup Sieff completely naked. In today’s jaded society, a picture like this would hardly make anyone bat an eyelash, but back then it caused quite the stir.
30 years later, the new creative director of YSL Tom Ford, would replicate the iconic ad for the new fragrance M7. This time around though, the American designer picked model Sam de Cubber to be front and centre — and when we say front, we mean full frontal (link NSFW). Again, it shocked but we would rather know what Laurent thought of the homage since his disapproval of Ford’s vision is well documented.
With the original campaign, People were not only shocked to see the French designer nude but also quite surprised by the fact that he had picked himself as the face of the campaign. This is a common practice nowadays but unprecedented at the time. In a way, Yves Saint Laurent was the first ‘celebrity’ designer. Fast track to 2010 when Marc Jacobs promoted his own perfume, also naked. Similarities where not lost on critics.
Oliviero Toscani for Benetton
Like we already said at the beginning of this post, Benetton is no stranger to controversy. But as striking as the Unhate campaign might have been, it doesn’t compare to what the Italian brand was doing back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
It all started when the heads of Benetton gave photographer Oliviero Toscani total freedom with the company’s marketing campaigns. Toscani took full advantage of this rare creative freedom, made a U-turn and went the opposite direction full speed.
From the very beginning, his intention was to spark conversations. The Italian photographer did this by using visually impacting images that had literally nothing to do with fashion. The ads distanced themselves so much from the product that the only relation to the brand was the tiny, green logo that appeared on the corner.
Some of the most iconic images include a black woman breastfeeding a white baby and a nun kissing a priest, but several agree that the most shocking spread featured a man with AIDS on his death-bed surrounded by tearful family members. The image is heart-wrenching in itself but the context it’s what makes it truly jaw-dropping.
This campaign was released in the midst of the AIDS epidemic of the late 80’s and early 90’s. There was a lot of paranoia back then. Not to mention misinformation. In a time where people couldn’t even say the name of the disease on television, much less did they dare to show images of it. Toscani basically took an ugly reality that many were choosing to ignore and waved it right in front of their faces. Needless to say, it was an unprecedented move that took a lot of cojones.
Benetton’s strategy has been criticised heavily for its reliance on shock value, but at the same time praised and awarded for bringing attention to important social, environmental and political issues. Since Toscani’s days, the company has taken a much tamer approach to advertising, but every now and then they still like to shake things up.
Original Text: Harald Meyer-Delius
1st Edit: Jessica Bowler
2nd Edit: Harald Meyer-Delius
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