'Gossip Girl' and Others
Branding Sex in Ads
Ad agencies and their corporate clients have found ways
to pair just about everything -- from skimpy underwear
to hamburgers -- with sex. Sex, the saying goes, sells.
But what happens when a marketing campaign crosses the
line and toys with the notion of underage sex?
Underage sex -- suggested, simulated or otherwise -- is
being used to sell clothes, cars and a hit television
In one ad, a girl wearing only American Apparel
underwear can be seen crawling between a man's legs. In
the next shot, the model is licking the crotch of the
man's underwear, glancing seductively at the camera.
An international ad -- not seen in the United States --
features a Lolita-like girl shot from the shoulders up,
her blond hair splayed across the page. The ad copy
reads "You know you're not the first." The product: BMW
For the second season of "Gossip Girl," promos have
graduated from salacious sayings like "OMFG" to racier
ads that depict members of the cast posed suggestively
with negative reviews plastered over them.
Ads like these are addressing sexuality more frankly
than ever, and some people have decided to take a stand
against the hyper-sexualization of pop culture. But
others -- including experts and people who work in the
advertising industry -- say it's too late to stop the
"The rub among the adults is 'is this good taste?'" said
ad executive John Klein. "Given more of a traditional
background one would have to say no. But, then, it
doesn't matter anymore."
Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, said
advertisers are selling more than a product: They are
marketing a complete "lifestyle" to teens and adults.
"Kids are exposed at younger and younger ages to more
and more sexually graphic material," Perle said. "When
you show an ad that showcases shortcuts to those things,
you're not just selling underwear or T-shirts, you're
selling whole ways of being."
Media creates norms for audiences of all ages, and when
television and magazines depict a warped image of
sexuality, inappropriate behaviors follow, Perle said.
"You show an ad of a girl looking like she's just had
sex or about to have sex in rumpled sheets wearing a
certain type of underwear, that creates a model of
what's OK for a kid," Perle said.
Although sex may be the "greatest shortcut to a
60-second ad or a one-impression ad," Perle said
advertisers shouldn't be permitted to exploit underage
"I'd just say to the creators of these ads, 'Put your
12-year-old girl or boy in front of them and see if you
repeat them,'" she said. "That should be the sanity
American Apparel Bares All
American Apparel founder Dov Charney is a man of many
contradictions -- he's an iconoclast, an
attention-grabber and a savvy businessman, Klein said.
Klein should know -- as managing partner of Klein
Mickaelian Partners, the businessman worked closely with
Charney, the figure behind American Apparel's racy,
"It's pretty easy to get attention, but it's not that
easy to get some relevance. It really takes some
poetry," Klein said. "He's very political. The exposure
has been remarkable -- and he's kind of sexually
Klein's firm originally developed a campaign for
American Apparel that portrayed the company as an
alternative to bigger corporations that produced their
clothes in sweatshops around the world.
Now, though, American Apparel's ads are more sexually
suggestive than political.
While he does not believe the American Apparel
advertisements are "groundbreaking," Advertising Age
magazine editor-at large Matthew Creamer said Charney's
team develops consistent ads that "telegraph the brand."
American Apparel now does all of its advertising
"They've created a really consistent campaign that you
can sort of see from a mile away," he said. "You always
know when you're looking at an American Apparel ad,
aside from the kind of homage to pornography that's
Klein attributed the success of Charney's sexually
explicit ads to the climate of the youth market. "All
the rules are being broken," he said.
"The market segment to which his ads appeal has lost all
sense," Klein said. "All morality, all the good taste,
all the propriety is gone."
Klein called the ads a reflection of American Apparel's
"I don't think we can really blame Dov -- he's an
opportunist," he said.
Despite the overall trend of hyper-sexuality in
advertising, Perle said adults and children alike should
question American Apparel's lewd campaigns.
"What's one to do when they see an ad for American
Apparel who would make Lolita look like she could apply
for Social Security?" Perle said.
American Apparel did not return numerous calls for
Cutting Through the Advertising Noise
Though BMW's target market -- older, affluent and
conservative -- might skew differently than that of a
brand like American Apparel, Creamer said, brazen
sexuality serves to draw younger customers into the fold
and stimulate older customers.
Creamer attributed the BMW ad's racy message to the
character of the company's international market.
"The standards are sort of different," he said.
"Definitely in London and in the UK the standards are
more lenient, and sort of risky advertising is expected,
I think. You wouldn't see something like that from BMW
in the U.S."
Even established companies have to make a name for
themselves in a crowded marketplace, where consumers can
be overwhelmed by the volume of advertising they
encounter every day.
"A lot of times the controversy at work is kind of
needed to cut through all the noise that's out there and
get people to pay attention to the brand," Creamer said.
"It's a tradeoff that's worth making."
BMW representatives could not be reached for comment.
'Promoting a Lifestyle'
John Chapin, an associate professor of communications at
Penn State University, said he has witnessed how shows
like "Gossip Girl" shape youth behavior. The show's
inherent "cool factor" makes teens want to mimic the
behavior of the show's characters, from the clothing
they wear to the purses they carry, he said.
"I think the biggest concern from my perspective isn't
necessarily the products, it's more the lifestyle,"
Chapin said. "It's promoting a lifestyle and making
something more glamorous."
Chapin, who has researched teenagers and their responses
to public health messages, said ads for "Gossip Girl"
have blurred the lines of what teenagers believe to be
A statement from the CW, which broadcasts the show,
asserted the network's commitment to connecting with
young viewers through a noticeable campaign.
"We wanted to create a provocative, unconventional
campaign that resonates with Gossip Girl's
sophisticated, media savvy young adult fans," the
network statement said. "By utilizing creative
statements made by third-party sources and outlets, this
new campaign speaks directly to our target audience in a
way they will appreciate."
Chapin questioned whether the "Gossip Girl" campaign was
giving its young viewers an unrealistic view of
sexuality and maturity.
"It's normalizing the sexualization of young people,"
Chapin said. "The models look very young and they
probably are not, but it's just normalizing what is
Sex: An Advertising History
Every generation has had its own cast of sexually
charged icons and brands that tested the limits of what
was acceptable, Perle said.
"We're all creatures of our culture and in his way Elvis
was as shocking to a generation of parents as these ads
have been to another one," Perle said. "Have we been
progressing down the food chain of hyper-sexuality?
Anyone who's seen a Bratz doll can say the answer."
"There have been really big brands that have kind of
done the kind of 'faux-porno' approach in the past and
brands for decades kind of flirted with different ways
of draping sexuality over their products," Creamer said.
In 1995, Calvin Klein Jeans ads featured models as young
as 15 in a campaign that mimicked the "picture set"
pornography of the 1960s. The U.S. Justice Department
subsequently launched an investigation into whether the
campaign had violated child pornography laws, and the
designer later recalled the ads. The controversy turned
the jeans into the year's "must-have" clothing item.
"The commercials looked like they were shot in a
basement with a handheld camcorder and there was a voice
that might as well have been a pedophile," Creamer said.
"I remember kind of getting a sick feeling watching
The clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire
in 1997 for showing nude and near-nude models in its
catalogue, "A&F Quarterly." The company shut down the
catalogue in 2003.
While the Calvin Klein ads faced a backlash from
consumers and watchdog groups, Chapin said American
Apparel and "Gossip Girl" ads aren't as controversial.
"The difference here is that times have changed," he
said. "I'm not seeing the backlash and that might be out
there, but kind of interesting me is ... by going the
viral route, you're just going directly to the consumers
without striking up any kind of reaction from the
Despite the outcry in response American Apparel's
sex-fueled ad campaigns and the naughty teens of "Gossip
Girl," racy and controversial ads are still a "pretty
safe bet," Creamer said.
"It's probably pretty safe if you're willing to go out
on a limb and do something like what BMW did or what
American Apparel does," Creamer said. "It's also getting
people to talk about this stuff -- probably one of the
best, most effective, most surefire ways to do that is