Caution: Explicit and sensitive imagery and nudity used below. Scroll at your own discretion.
Fashion campaigns are major selling tools for brands. Brands compete every year to have the best ads and I guess the shock factor has to be employed to get the attention.
Some hit for the mind-blowing creativity on the use of products and imagery, others, well let’s just say some get the jaw drop for breaking the rules via graphic imagery, blunt slogans, challenging conventions and sparking controversy.
Here, we take a look through some of the most controversial ads in fashion. Most of these ads have been been banned and heavily criticized. They were pulled from the streets, magazines and banners. Even the pair of scandalous bare butt jeans by Vetements has nothing on these histories banned campaigns.
While lately, fashion campaign controversies surround racism, Lack of diversity and cultural appropriation; the most controversial campaigns centred on sexuality, hyper-sexualisation of women and nudity. I mean is it even still a debate that sex sells? Or as Zoe Latta put it, “creates some rubbernecking?”
ECKHAUS LATTA; REAL SEX
Since we are on the subject of Latta let’s kick off with the brand. Eckhaus Latta designers seems to thrive on controversial campaigns as they have gotten in trouble couple of times. But the one ad that shook the world was their campaign featuring models wearing their spring 2017 collection. So what was the big deal with the ad? The models were having real sex in front of the camera for photographer Heji Shin. You read that right. Mid-coitus. A variety of same-sex and heterosexual couples were shown.
Though pixelated, and the models were apparently real couples, the images still caused such a stir to the extent that the brand’s site crashed.
DOLCE & GABBANA; GANG RAPE
Dolce & Gabbana’s 2007 campaign came to be known as the “gang rape advert” is one of the most controversial fashion campaigns of all time. It was Critiqued as depicting gang rape, and ‘glorifying rape’.
several magazines refused to run it. it was banned online and in print. Designer Stefano Gabbana defended the image, saying its intent was to show “an erotic dream, a sexual game”.
TOM FORD; BOTTLE BETWEEN THIGHS
2007 ‘Tom Ford for men’ eponymous men’s fragrance campaign featured the nude model strategically holding the bottle between her thighs in one image to cover her genitalia and pressed between breasts in another. Shots were produced by Terry Richardson (predictable!)
critics condemned the images as misogynistic and highly inappropriate for international audience.
This ad got banned only in Italy.
GUCCI; SHAVED “G”
Tom Ford seems to enjoy the provocative campaigns wherever he goes. During his reign in Gucci, he worked with stylist Carine Roitfeld and shot by Mario Testino for an ad featuring models with pubic hair shaved into the shape of their logo.
The ad was infamously nicknamed ‘Pubic Enemy’ by the photographer. Depicting a male model poised before the nether regions of a standing woman whose “G”-shaved monogram is exposed just below eye level.
Despite thousands of complaints, citing “vile, coarse and degrading to women, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority did not ban the provocative ad. But it was later taken down.
BENETTON; KIRBY ON DEATH BED
You can’t mention Controversial advertising, without mentioning the pioneer themselves; Benetton clothing retailers. The brand had public outrage and consumer complaints following some of its campaigns.
The one that really stirred controversy was the haunting image of David Kirby, a HIV/AIDS activist, captured at his deathbed by Therese Frare. Critics thought Benetton had gone too far in featuring the final moments of Kirby’s life.
BENETTON; LEADERS MAKING OUT
Still on Benetton, Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez and several other world leaders were photoshoped making out in a 2011 campaign by United Colors of Benneton.
The controversial UNHATE campaign featured even pope Benedict XVI and imam Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb sharing a kiss. The ad was taken down after a matter of hours.
SISLEY; DRUG USE DEPICTION
Sisley (the sister company of United Colours of Benetton) have been known to put forward several crazy ads.
A 2007 “‘Fashioin Junkie’ (sic) advert, shot by Terry Richardson, depicted two models looking noticeably high and was condemned for its blatant expression of drug use and glamourise of it.
YVES SAINT LAURENT’S; LADY IN WHITE
The 2000 ad campaign for Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium fragrance by Tom Ford received immediate attention. The ‘Lady in White’ advert featured British model Sophie Dahl in nothing but white paint, jewellery and heels. This was the most complained ad of the year in the UK.
The complaint was that the pose was sexual and provocative, deemed unsuitable for children’s viewing. This made it the eighth most complained advertisement in recorded history. It was later removed from billboards around the world.
AMERICAN APPAREL; MID-CLIMAX
The debate whether sex really sells comes up again. This is because American Apparel, whose founder Dov Charney faced a litany of sexual harassment lawsuits, ran controversial ads depicting highly sexualized and barely clothed women.
However, this did not save it from bankruptcy.
One of its controversial campaigns by photographer Terry Richardson depicted a tights-clad model masturbating and apparently mid-climax.
FLY53; GUN ADS
The UK streetwear label FLY53’s 2010 ad campaigns were banned in several publications based upon several complaints received by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
The public complained that the advertisement’s depiction of gun crime was likely to be seen as glamorizing and condoning real violence.
YVES SAINT LAURENT’S; YSL NUDE
Yves Saint Laurent posed nude for Jeanloup Sieff to debut his first-ever perfume for his namesake label, Pour Homme. Shot by French photographer Jeanloup Sieff, the controversial image marked the first time a perfumer appeared in his own ads.
MARITHE AND FRANCOIS GIRBAUD; LAST SUPPER
A campaign by Marithe and Francois Girbaud was banned in 2005. In their ad for jeans the company redesigned the ‘Last Supper’ famous painting with mainly female models and only one male model portraying John, wearing jeans and partially naked.
Hundreds of complainants slammed the brand saying that the ad diminishes the value of Last Supper and offends belief of billions of people.
While sex ads crash websites, do the products sell? A researcher John Wirtz reviewed nearly 80 advertising studies and concluded that sex appeal had zero correlation with propensity to buy products. In other words: sex didn’t sell.
The gag is, there is a new sheriff in town; Activism. In early 2017, global publications concluded that activism had replaced sex as the new ruler of marketing imagery. Why? Because we live in an increasingly political world.