Think. Discuss. Act. Advertising

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The Shock Effect In Advertising

Elash, A. (1995, October, 2). The Shock Effect. Maclean’s, p. 36.


(Download Shock Effect overview as a PDF)

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates a Calvin Klein advertisement campaign to determine whether or not Klein “broke any child pornography laws by using models under the age of 18.” The ad campaign featured “pubescent-looking models posing in underwear of jeans in a seedy basement…” What is the message regarding advertising today? Anita Elash believes that “public resistance to the use of sex in advertising-especially when it suggests violence or exploitation-seems to be on the rise.”

The issue is the exploitation of sex in advertising. To exploit someone is to use that person for personal gain. To exploit sex is to use sex for one’s own advantage. Such is the way of the advertising industry, particularly Calvin Klein. The controversy is that young people are being used for someone else’s gain.

Many consumers feel that now is a unique time for advertisers, because the public is going conservative. ” ‘I think there is a more conservative attitude in our society,’ ” says Suzanne Keeler, vice-president of business affairs for theCanadian Advertising Foundation (CAF). ” ‘Ten years ago, sexuality was not nearly the issue it is now.’ “

The television spot of Klein’s ad campaign revealed the following scenario: “an unseen older male with a hand-held video camera instructs the young models to unbutton their jeans, asks if they have ever posed nude before and praises their physiques.” Shari Graydon, the Vancouver-based president of MediaWatch, finds Kleins ads ” ‘creepy,’ ” especially because the campaign ” ‘coincides with heightened concern about the sexual abuse of children.’ “

Klein himself did not believe that the ads would truly offend anyone. He believed that the campaign would, however, reach its target audience: teenagers and young adults. In fact, Ron Telpner, president of the Toronto-based ad agency BCP asked several staff members in their early 20s about their thoughts on the ad campaign. Telpner says the young staff members “thought they were great.” Telpner admits that the campaign pushed its limits, but he also argues that pushing the limits ” is exactly what the best advertising does. ” He further claims, “Our aim is not to offend anybody. Our aim is to sell jeans.”

Consumers also have an aim and a voice, and many consumers are now starting to use their voice. In fact, several experts believe that the public is no longer tolerating ad campaigns that permit explicit sexuality: “A recent academic study of consumer attitudes in the Journal of Advertising concluded that ‘the age-old notion that sex sells may be an unduly risky assumption’ in the 1990s because of widespread concern about morality and sexual stereotyping.” Furthermore, “Sexual imagery is now the single biggest cause of complaints to the CAF, which administers a voluntary set of guidelines on advertising content.”

Most advertisers still agree that the limits depend on where the ad appears. For instance, clothing retailer Holt Renfrew discovered that when they placed an ad for the French perfume Jaipur in the quarterly fashion segment published by The Globe and Mail, angry customers called within hours. The ad featured a naked woman “whose wrists were bound behind her back by a bracelet-shaped perfume bottle.” The ad was cancelled immediately and an apology appeared in the newspaper the next day. However, in France, that same ad is now featured on a popular postcard.

In conclusion, advertisers are aware that some of their ad campaigns will cause conflict, and “controversy is not always a bad thing-a point illustrated by the enduring popularity of Klein’s denims.” Advertisers use visual images to catch the attention of the potential consumer. However, many times, these images are provocative, and have little to do with the product being sold. On a more positive note, many advertisers are beginning to hear the voice of the consumer. “Many advertisers say that in the current climate, they need to be more sensitive to public concerns about the overuse of sexual images.” Telpner says that the challenge now is to come up with something “just as innovative.”

Questions for Reflections and Discussion

  1. How do you feel about the Jaipur ad? List ten things that it implies about women. Are you in France buying the postcard, or are you in America waiting for an apology?
  2. If you see an ad that you think is morally debasing, what can you do as a consumer?
  3. Think about these points found in Klein’s TV spot and consider them in relation to sexual abuse: an older mail voice-the man cannot be seen, teenagers unbuttoning their pants on this man’s command, a video camera. Why is the man older? Why is he taping these young teens? Why aren’t the girls afraid? What do you think about this TV ad? How does it portray women? What do men think about it and how does it portray the average male?
  4. Why do advertisers use teen sexuality? Does it work?


These ads are being seen by youth everyday, and they communicate messages about how one should live and be treated. Youth workers, parents, and teachers need to look at these ads and help young people critically discern them.

Patricia Morrison Batten
© 2018 CYS

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