Fashion advertising is perhaps one of the most controversial discussions in media today. With advanced photoshop techniques editors and at home hobbyists can transform models to virtually unrecognizable figures of perfection. Beyond editing, the very essence of fashion advertising is worth examining as well. Are there any subjects brands should avoid? Are certain controversial topics such as rape, suicide, addiction and violence just too harsh to feature in an attempt to sell a purse?
The shock value of an advertisement glorifying rape or drug use is enough to make wholesome mothers scoff and rosy cheeked preteens blush. A Bloomingdale’s ad the holiday 2016 season proclaimed “Spike your best friend’s drink when she’s not looking” as a handsomely suited man glanced toward a svelte female model laughing in red lipstick. Whether the ad was meant to shock or poke fun the date rape undertone garnered attention. In the world of fashion the saying “any press is good press” is a common sentiment. Bloomingdale’s faux pas was quickly forgotten by shoppers hurrying to snatch up Christmas gifts before the holidays, and after a public apology the scandal was pushed under the rug so to speak.
Throughout time artists have pushed boundaries by portraying heavy subjects like depression, suicide and drug use in a variety of mediums. The wildly famous Van Gogh “Scream” paintings are thought to be inspired by mental illness. In literature, Sylia Plath’s poems and fictional stories that follow her own descent into madness are well regarded as classic works of art. Though not all of these pieces are hung above suburban mantles or read to children at bedtime, some of the most controversial artistic pieces are regarded highly as masterpieces in the art world. Art captures raw human emotion and experience, both the good and the bad. The creative world of advertising is unarguably artistic. Is it enough to allow brands to self censor their artistic marketing tactics or should the government play a more active role in censorship.
Though Middle Eastern powerhouses like Dubai have taken a stand censoring advertising to fit into a primarily Muslim culture and the UK has taken a stand against the over sexualization of child models, the United States remains blase on the topic of ad censorship. American Apparel and Abercrombie and Fitch have been criticized for highly sexualized ads aimed at primarily teenage demographics. Yet, consensual sex is hardly the shocking issue we discuss in advertising today. Sex appeal has lost most of it’s shock value in advertising. Society has become mostly desensitized to svelte young women posed sexily and scantily clad.
Check out some of the most shocking fashion advertisements (10 listed here) (5 more listed here) and you’ll find that the sexuality between a couple is rarely controversial. Rather, the most confrontational ads feature drug references, rape scenes, and even gun crimes. While these topics are not considered off limits in fine art the idea of politically incorrect subject sneaking into magazines and billboards has caused emotional out bursts. Should large corporations glamorize substance abuse, gang rape…prostitution? Are these advertisements merely distasteful or are they potentially dangerous? While an individual artist can choose to portray a drug overdose or a suicide, should a corporation using these images to sell products be held to a different (more rigid) code of ethics?
The world of fashion is influential. One season skirts are short and flared, the next season they’re tight, the hemlines rise and fall. We fall in love with pointed toed flats only to trade them in for round toed heels the next season. There’s no question that what is seen on the magazines and runways has an affect culturally. Does an advertisement relating fashion to cocaine use desensitize young people to the dangerous effects of drug use…even just a little? Does an ad portraying a glamorously dressed woman pinned down in a gang rape scene contradict all of the emphasis we’ve placed on the less fashionable “no means no” campaigns (See Forever 21’s latest t-shirt controversy)?
If these campaigns don’t have an effect, why are these tactics used by some of the most profitable fashion houses in the world? As a company is it more lucrative to maintain a politically correct image or to push boundaries? In the artistic world of fashion edginess often overpowers wholesomeness. Advertisements you don’t want to discuss with your Grandmother over Easter brunch are here to stay.