News Article

Calvin Klein: A Pitch Too Far

People aren't happy with the brand's newest ad campaign

Ever since he plastered a sun-drenched, emotionally unavailable male beauty onto a Times Square billboard back in 1982, Calvin Klein has taken gay desire into the mainstream, not only making the male body unavoidably visible in pop culture but changing the way we look at it. His blue-tinted Obsession perfume ads, lavishly photographed by Bruce Weber, presented it nude in 1985, and his CK advertising — with Marky Mark, whose overpumped cheese-boy physique is pure West Hollywood fantasy — made it young.

Klein's newest ads made it too young. Criticism that its images resembled kiddie porn got Calvin Klein, Inc., to shelve its new CK jeans campaign, while the company insisted that its ''message about the spirit, independence, and inner worth of today's young people has been misunderstood by some.'' But new information about the making of the ads casts doubt on the wholesomeness of the ''message'' Klein really intended to convey.

Inspiration for the campaign — which included magazine spreads of models reportedly as young as 15 in underwear and TV spots in which models responded to the suggestive questions of an older male off-camera voice — came from photographer Steven Meisel, who published similar photos in the May/June issue of the Italian magazine L'Uomo Vogue. That photo series, says a source close to the campaign, ''was meant to look like porno of the '60s. Calvin saw that and said, 'Let's do the whole campaign like this.'''

The porno connection didn't end there. Meisel, who in 1992 had shot the stylishly sleazy, sexually explicit pictures of Madonna for her book, Sex, cast S&M aficionado Lou Maletta — host of a New York local cable, X-rated-video review show, Men in Films — as the off-camera voice in the TV commercials. When Klein found out, ''we replaced [Maletta's] voice-overs prior to the ads' airing when we became aware of all the facts,'' says a company spokesman, who calls allegations that the ads were inspired by pornography ''absolutely untrue.''

Still, Klein ''crossed the line,'' says Richard Kirschenbaum, chief creative officer of the Kirschenbaum & Bond agency. ''I'm happy he withdrew the campaign — it denigrated advertising as a medium.'' Of course, the controversy took Klein's ''coolness factor from a 10 to a 60,'' says Marian Salzman, a corporate director at the TBWA Chiat/Day agency, though sometimes, she notes, ''we're too cool for our own good.''

Degen Pener, with reporting by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh

Originally posted Sep 08, 1995 Published in issue #291 Sep 08, 1995 Order article reprints