4 of the Most Controversial Print Ads From Calvin Klein, Which Says It’s Done With Magazines

The brand and its stars have courted controversy for decades

Brooke Shields was only 15 when she began appearing in Calvin Klein ads.
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

A 15-year-old Brooke Shields going commando. A 17-year-old Kate Moss going topless. Heroin chic, upskirt shots, exposed butt cracks (or entire butts) and a nonstop bacchanalia of group action.

Calvin Klein has spent decades courting controversy with its deliberately provocative advertising in glossy magazines, but those days are now numbered.

The brand is ditching print ads as of February 2019 in favor of digital, video, experiential and other “consumer-centric” marketing, according to WWD, which recently reported a number of changes at the iconic label. Expect more frequent posts on Instagram and other social media platforms and stepped-up micro influencer programs, the pub says, as CK targets millennials and Gen Z consumers rather than high net worth fashion snobs.

Plenty of marketers have slashed their print budgets, but Calvin has one of the most storied histories in the medium, pairing world-class photographers (Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Mario Sorrenti, to name a few) with beautiful celebrities (a naked Eva Mendes, a possibly photoshopped Justin Bieber, Woody Harrelson in a cowboy hat, Kendall Jenner with a grapefruit) in intentionally pot-stirring work. Some of it is NSFW, while much seems blatantly out of step with the #TimesUp era.

But for a buzz-seeking, opportunistic advertiser like CK, there’s been no better publicity than public protests from the likes of the American Family Association and former president Bill Clinton. The U.S. Justice Department even weighed in amid concerns of exploited minors (but the ad stars in a creepy ’95 shoot turned out to be adults, not children).

The more dissected campaigns include: Supermodel Lara Stone and three shirtless dudes against a chain link fence (banned in Australia for being “suggestive of violence and rape”), Steven Meisel’s pervy portraits of pubescent-looking models (against ’70s-era basement-grade wood paneling), Abbey Lee Kershaw photographed with her hands shoved down the front of her underwear (unofficially dubbed “Erotica”), and children cavorting in skivvies (criticized so heavily that the brand dropped the ads and cancelled plans for a Times Square billboard).

Whether considered sexy and stunning or sexist and objectifying, Calvin Klein’s creative made an indelible mark on the industry. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your POV).

A post-Pretty Baby Brooke Shields, in skin tight denim and barely buttoned shirt, declared: “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” Many clutched their pearls. ABC and CBS banned the TV version of the ad, but the hubbub spiked sales and boosted Shields’ career. She reunited with the brand 37 years later to model its sporty lingerie line.

A then-unknown model named Kate Moss starred in a 1993 series of naked-on-a-couch photos by her then-boyfriend Sorrenti that became the button-pushing Calvin Klein Obsession campaign. The images were so impactful that the brand resurrected some unused prints from the original campaign and ran them in 2017.

Plenty of men have anchored Calvin Klein ads (Mario Lopez, Jamie Dornan, Djimon Hounsou, pre-Vikings Travis Fimmel), but perhaps the best recalled is Mark Wahlberg (and his washboard abs). The ads caused a stir because, apparently, crotch-grabbing was still considered shocking in the early ‘90s.

Risqué group shots had been part of the CK portfolio for years, but a 2009 collection of ads shot by photographer Steven Meisel seemed to get people especially steamed. One of the print ads, showing a foursome, appeared on a 50-foot billboard in SoHo ruffled feathers and even sparked boycott threads.

Amid the backlash, the brand removed the billboard version of the ad and replaced it with…a soaking wet gal in a string bikini. Better?

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

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@TLStanleyLA tlstanley8@yahoo.com T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.
Publish date: December 19, 2018 https://dev.adweek.com/creativity/4-of-the-most-controversial-print-ads-from-calvin-klein-which-says-its-done-with-magazines/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT