Controversy in Fashion Advertising

Controversy in Fashion Advertising

Fashion is an industry that is no stranger to controversy. Fashion advertising in particular has been known to be especially provocative. Beyond just overtly sexual imagery and scantily clad models, some companies have pushed the envelope even further with shock and awe tactics that can’t possibly be ignored. This article will highlight some of the most iconic and controversial advertisements in fashion history and discuss how they fared in the court of public opinion.

 David Kirby in 1992 Benetton Ad - Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

David Kirby in 1992 Benetton Ad - Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

In 1992, Benetton launched an advertising campaign that would make jaws drop in a series of billboards and posters that brought attention to uncomfortable social issues. In what has since been described as the most controversial advertisement in the fashion industry’s history, David Kirby is depicted lying in his hospital bed dying from AIDS; his family is at his bedside grieving. At the time of the ad’s release, HIV and AIDS were hot-button issues that no one really wanted to acknowledge. The gay community and many others called for a boycott of Benetton for what they viewed as the commodification of suffering brought by HIV. However, Kirby’s family wrote, “We don’t feel we’ve been used by Benetton, but rather the reverse: David is speaking much louder now that he’s dead, than he did when he was alive.” Other images in the campaign depicted an amputee with a spoon attached to his limb to raise awareness for the World Food Programme, a guerilla fighter holding a human femur, as well as a photoshopped image of Barack Obama kissing Hu Jintao of China.

 Dakota Fanning in 2011 Marc Jacobs for Oh, Lola! campaign - Photo by Juergen Teller

Dakota Fanning in 2011 Marc Jacobs for Oh, Lola! campaign - Photo by Juergen Teller

The above 2011 Marc Jacobs advertisement for his perfume “Oh Lola!” was criticized for appearing to sexualize minors, as it shows the bottle on Fanning’s crotch and the perfume’s name is similar to Lolita. Defenders of the ad countered that Fanning was fully dressed and not sexualized at all. Fanning herself later said, “If you want to read something into a perfume bottle, then I guess you can. But it’s also like, Why are you making it about that, you creep? I love Marc and trust him, and we just laughed about it.”

 Josie Maran in 2001 Sisley Ad - Photo by Terry Richardson

Josie Maran in 2001 Sisley Ad - Photo by Terry Richardson

In 2011, Terry Richardson, the infamous and now widely blacklisted fashion photographer, shot Sisley’s campaign titled “Farming.” This image showing Josie Maran squirting milk from a cow’s udder was banned by the Advertising Standards Agency for its obvious sexual imagery. Richardson would continue to shoot for large fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, and Marc Jacobs, although he has recently been banned from working with Condé Nast which owns prominent fashion magazines GQ, Vogue, Glamour, and Vanity Fair.

Clearly the fashion industry is a big believer in the philosophy that “All publicity is good publicity.” Outrage begets attention, and attention begets profit. These provocative ads were some of the worst offenders, but even current advertisements frequently toe the line between what is societally acceptable. It is up to consumers to decide whether to reward such behavior.

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