And for the record, I'm a huge fan of toppling cultural taboos. I also think that South Park and Family Guy rock.
Dolce & Gabbana Pulls Controversial Ad
D&G ad (above) which appeared in Esquire and elsewhere, kicked off a storm of controversy.
March 07, 2007
By Sandra O’Loughlin
NEW YORK -- A Dolce & Gabbana ad that appeared in the March issue of Esquire and in other countries around the world has been pulled following protests in Italy and Spain.
The ad, which shows a woman in a menacing situation on her back in a tight black dress and spiked heels as a bare-chested man holds her down by the wrist with four other men looking on, raised the ire of consumer groups in the U.S., Spain and Italy.
The New York offfice of the company did not return calls to Brandweek seeking comment on the ad’s withdrawal, but Stefano Gabbana, a partner in Dolce & Gabbana, has indicated that the image does not represent gang rape or violence but rather an erotic dream or sexual game.
Still, Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, finds the portrayal disturbing. “It is a provocative ad, but it is provoking things that really are not what we want to have provoked,” she told Brandweek. “We don’t need any more violence.”
Marketers Struggle With the 'Dark' Side
February 20, 2007
By Sandra O'Loughlin and Steve Miller
NEW YORK -- A woman, fully clothed in a tight dress and spiked heels, lies on her back, hips raised as a bare-chested man holds her down and four other men look on.
The menace in the situation is underscored by the fact that the woman is blankly unsmiling and some of the men appear to have slight sneers on their faces.
It isn't clear what is happening. Has he knocked her down? Is he about to strangle her? To some, the print ad from fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana suggests gang rape. To others, it's a matter of a fashion-forward brand publicizing itself.
Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, found the ad surprising and disturbing. "It's in Esquire, so they probably don't think a stylized gang rape will sell clothes to women, but what is more likely is that they think it will get them publicity," she said. Esquire did not respond to calls for comment by press time.
"It's a provocative ad but it is provoking things that really are not what we want to have provoked," Gandy continued. "We don't need any more violence." NOW is considering some form of protest, and will include it on the "Love Your Body: Offensive Ads" portion of its Web site. D&G reps declined comment.
D&G's ad is just the latest attempt among marketers to mine darker themes in their advertising. Last week, Volkswagen pulled a TV ad that featured a man about to commit suicide by jumping off a roof—the latest in a surprising number of suicide-themed ads lately.
Even beer ads, once an oasis of 'Whassup'-style good cheer, have succumbed to a more biting brand of humor. Remarking on a Bud Light Super Bowl ad that showed a man bashing his friend with a rock during a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and a Coors Light ad in which a man hacked off the bride's head in an ice sculpture to cool the beer, The New York Times detected a new theme: "Anything that delays a man's beer drinking is bad and must be eradicated, be it women, best friends, jobs, pets or children. In other words, whatever you have to do to get more beer, do it . . . as quickly as possible."
Marketers have long used sex and humor in their ads to generate interest, but such black humor, not to mention dabbling in rape and suicide, appears to be a phenomenon confined to this decade. Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, blames the usual marketing bugaboos—splintered media and short attention spans—for advertisers' new interest in darker fare.
Thompson said marketers are also trying to catch up with programs like South Park and The Family Guy that make sport of toppling cultural taboos.
"This kind of outrageous material is today's lingua franca," he said. "One would expect ads to follow."
Though D&G's ads are informed by popular culture, it's likely the brand is following the tradition of another Italian fashion brand, United Colors of Benetton. Throughout the '80s and '90s under former creative director Oliviero Toscani, Benetton ads famously have shown a nun kissing a priest, a newborn baby still attached to the umbilical cord and a man dying of AIDS, among other provocative images.
Since 2000, Benetton creative has been handled by Fabrica, a communication research center Toscani helped establish, and has alternated between conventional product campaigns and social themes such as volunteerism, famine and portraits of apes.
Margaret Duffy, chair of strategic communications at the Missouri School of Journalism, sees another influence: Calvin Klein's ads in the '90s featuring models that many thought were meant to evoke emaciated junkies.
"Despite all the hue and cry, most people felt it did not damage the brand but caused so much publicity it really wasn't a negative experience," Duffy said of Klein's ads. "From the standpoint of the brand, Dolce & Gabbana is not Ann Taylor. It is expected to be edgy and out there. If they're not pushing the envelope a little bit, they're probably not doing very good advertising."
Raul Martinez, CEO/executive creative director at AR, New York, has devised D&G ads since 1996, with the exception of the ad in Esquire. Martinez said communicating the brand's assets is the primary concern. "If you look at the Dolce & Gabbana brand in the first 10-15 years, you have a brand that is completely focused on communicating its Italian, in fact, Sicilian, heritage," he said. "It is coming from a very Latin, passionate, emotional and sexually charged space."
While "Sicilian heritage" may explain away provocative ads for some, others are at a loss to explain why suicide is popping up more and more as an advertising theme. VW's ad was one of many recent ads that refer to the taking of one's life. A current spot for Careerbuilder.com, for instance, features a flock of office workers who leap off a cliff to avoid a training seminar.
In another ad, a group of wives shame their husbands who are about to jump off a building over Washington Mutual's free checking.
And of course, there's the General Motors Super Bowl spot featuring a forlorn robot that appears to "off" himself by jumping into dark waters after being let go from his assembly line job. Though GM and VW pulled their ads, reps at Careerbuilder.com and WaMu said the ads have run without incident.
Suicide has popped up as an ad theme before in this decade. In 2001, Ikea ran an outdoor ad in which a depressed gnome—this was in Germany, understand—was lying on a rail track with ad copy that read: "An end to feeling grumpy—Ikea is coming." In 2003, Honda ran an ad in Australia that showed an older model Accord driving itself off a cliff, distraught over the allure of the newer model.
The recent spate of ads with suicide content "has to be a coincidence," said Gary Topolewski, a Detroit-based ad veteran who has worked on campaigns for Jeep and Apple. "Suicide is something that is talked about fairly freely, as in, 'I'm going to kill myself,' something that people say in sort of a kidding way," he said. A climate of sensitivity and a broader distribution base via the Internet has made what was once edgy into something that may be construed as insensitive, he added.
Suicide prevention activists claim an ad could tip over someone on the brink of the act. "These are showing methods, and can contribute to 'copycat' suicides," said Robert Gebbia, executive director-American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
In the face of such criticism, Wally Snyder, president/CEO of the American Advertising Federation, advises advertisers to resist the urge to keep up with racy South Park-style humor and hard-R subject matter.
"I salute the clients' move to say, 'This isn't worth it," he said. "Sometimes, it just doesn't advance the product. This is not like literature or the movies. This is a business proposition and we have to take it very seriously."