Controversial Ads, How Far Is Too Far?

January 16, 2023
Written By:
Written By:
January 16, 2023

What is the point of advertising campaigns for fashion brands? To capture the attention of audiences right? Nowadays shock value can be quite an asset for companies trying to make an impact with their campaign strategy. But where is the line between a shocking ad that ads value, controversial fashion ads, and a full-on fashion scandal? How far is too far? How far is just plain unethical advertising?

It seems that partly due to the astounding flow of information the human mind encounters daily, we have become drastically desensitized to the point that few things shock us anymore. Not a day goes by that we don’t come across horrific news. One would think that given the rise in public concern and demand for inclusion, care, and respect for social issues, we would be way past insensitive controversial fashion ads. Yet it seems that the normalization of tragedy combined with brands’ constant strive for views and attention have bred an unhealthy desire for controversy. Added to the fact that nowadays something can trend globally within minutes… What better way to have people talk about you than cause controversy and debate? Is unethical advertising on the rise?

We wish we could reply no to that, but the following three examples prove otherwise.

Calvin Klein’s 2017 complete and utter lack of tact

Calvin Klein’s 2017 advertising campaign for Jeans featured a photograph of a model who appeared to be extremely thin and gaunt, with the tagline “I’m starving for attention.” The ad was criticized for promoting an unhealthy and unrealistic body image and for making light of eating disorders.

The use of the phrase “I’m starving” in the context of a fashion ad is problematic enough as it is. How can a brand trivialize such a serious and life-threatening condition like anorexia (and all other eating disorders) when its industry is, historically speaking, one of the main cultural culprits behind unrealistic beauty standards and distorted body image?

deaf tone calvin klein ad
Source: Calvin Klein

The ad itself features a model that appears to be extremely underweight and gaunt, which can be triggering for people who have suffered from eating disorders or are recovering from them. It can also set a very harmful example for the public and especially for young people, who are particularly vulnerable to the influence of unrealistic beauty standards.

Furthermore, the ad promotes harmful cultural ideals of desirability and health, as well as the notion that physical suffering is a means to an end.

That same year, the brand was also highly criticized for an underwear ad featuring an extremely youthful model whose body resembled that of a child.

Nivea’s abhorrent campaign strategy

white is purity nivea
Source: The Washington Post

In 2016, Nivea, a German skincare company, came under fire for an ad that featured the tagline “white is purity.” The ad, which was intended to promote a new line of deodorant for men, depicted a white man with the phrase “re-civilize yourself” and was widely criticized for promoting white supremacy and racism. The company pulled the ad and issued an apology for any offence caused.

The ad campaign is a clear example of the racism that can be present in the beauty and skincare industry. Throughout time many products have been marketed as “whitening” products, thus promoting the idea that fairer skin is more desirable and implying that people with darker skin are not good enough as they are. The fact that it’s only recently that mainstream brands have begun opening up their range to be truly inclusive to all, or at the very least more, skin types, goes to show just how far we have to go. Moreover, this has only been achieved thanks to the efforts of people of colour to promote inclusivity. Where would the beauty industry’s inclusivity be without Rihanna’s Fenty?

This problematic message is not specific only to Nivea, it is unfortunately a recurrent theme in the beauty industry. Skincare brand Dove has enraged audiences more than once, it seems like they just don’t want to learn. In 2011 one of their adverts showed a Black woman turning white after using Dove soap, intended to promote the brand’s “visibly more beautiful skin”, and in 2020 they released an ad that showed a Black woman taking off her shirt to reveal a white woman.

Balenciaga for kids, plain unethical advertising

We couldn’t forget the fashion scandal of the year. The one which continues to reap the consequences of its actions months later. We’re talking of course about the Balenciaga 2022 campaign featuring children, and teddy bears dressed in BDSM. The backlash was immediate. #cancelBalenciaga trended on every social media platform. The public outrage was palpable on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, condemning Balenciaga Creative Director Demna for condoning, or at the very least normalizing, paedophilia and child exploitation.

Now, for those of you who might now be thinking that it wasn’t that bad and that they were just teddy bear pictures where the links to paedophilia were misunderstood. Keep in mind that earlier that month Balenciaga had dropped an ad that pictured a bag on top of scattered documents from a child pornography case.

controversial balenciaga ad
Source: Balenciaga

For the past few years, Demna’s influence has steered Balenciaga towards controversy in every campaign strategy. And while it has worked in the sense that Balenciaga has consistently been the talk of the time after all its controversial fashion ads, this time around they have crossed the line, big time.

Controversy has a price

Companies must be aware of the impact they can have on society and ensure that whichever campaign strategy they decide to follow, respects certain criteria. It is key to remain conscious of the implications of the language and imagery used. If you, for whatever reason, do not concern yourself with social issues, at the very least be aware that whatever your campaign communicated will be intrinsically linked to your values as a company. There is such a thing as shock without controversy. You can shock people with awe for one. How about you try that instead?

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