emerging brands are taking ‘sex sells’ to new extremes
Allusion and innuendo are so 2016.
For spring/summer 2017, Eckhaus Latta unveiled an X-rated campaign that featured real-life people having sex. Eight couples of different races and sexual orientations were captured in the midst of intimate acts from oral sex to handjobs. The models in mid-coitus were styled in deconstructed knit tops and colorful patterned trousers from the brand. The images, photographed by Heji Shin, are pixelated to hide the most naughty details, but there is no question about what is happening in the photos. The provocative images took the old adage of "sex sells" to a whole new level.
One of the first sex-driven advertisements was introduced in 1911, when Woodbury Soap released a game-changing campaign that pictured a fully-clothed man and woman lightly embracing. By 1936, the popular soap company featured the first fully nude woman in its ads. Other brands quickly caught on to the power of sex appeal.
It was photographer Guy Bourdin that helped usher in a new era of erotic fashion campaigns in the 1960s. His boundary-pushing work for brands like Charles Jourdan and Roland Pierre and magazines like Vogue Paris and Harper's Bazaar embraced nudes and explored voyeurism. These pictures came at the start of the sexual revolution, which challenged traditional notions of sex, gender, and pornography.
By the 1980s, it became commonplace for brands like Calvin Klein to create titillating imagery to sell jeans and perfume. Its iconic super-sexy advertisements showcased an array of scantily-clad pretty young things marketing its products. Tom Ford continued to push the boundaries for high-fashion ads in the early 2000s. His sex-driven campaigns for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and his namesake label largely depicted half-nude models strewn about in suggestive poses—one of his most controversial showed a male model pulling down model Carmen Kass's underwear to reveal the "G" of Gucci shaved into her pubic hair.
At the time, these seductive campaigns were highly successful for the brands. Calvin Klein's denim ads featuring an underage Brooke Shields with her shirt open and curve-hugging jeans contributed to $2 million in monthly sales, despite being banned by several networks. After Ford bought his provocative vision to Gucci in 1994 sales increased by 90 percent between 1995 and 1996.
But Eckhaus Latta's campaign comes at a time when overtly sexual ads have lost their power. For decades now, young people have been bombarded with exploitive images of naked women selling everything from bottled water to laptop computers. Today, millennials are looking for brands that show substance, not just skin.
"They don't respond to traditional notions of beauty or even sexuality," Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer of the image-making agency Yard, explained to Business Insider. "They respond to real social change and self direction."
A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2015 confirmed that sex isn't actually selling the way it used to. According to the research, "Brands advertised using sexual ads were evaluated less favorably than brands advertised using nonviolent, nonsexual ads. There were no significant effects of sexual media on memory or buying intentions." It continued, "As intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitudes, and buying intentions decreased." This changing mentality forced struggling brands like Abercrombie and Fitch and the now-defunct American Apparel, which were infamous for their hyper-sexualized aesthetics, to rebrand with more conservative images.
Still, young designers have continued to push the envelope with raunchy campaigns. When Alexander Wang released his denim line in 2014, his ads featured a naked greased-down model with her jeans around her ankles. Since taking the helm at Saint Laurent in 2016, Anthony Vaccarello has also upped the sex appeal of the luxury fashion house, most recently with a shoot for Spring 2017 that showed women posing with their legs spread open and bending over.
"We had a similar type of porno chic [in fashion advertising] a decade ago, and here we have it coming back again, which isn't acceptable," Stéphane Martin, the director of the French advertising authority, the Autorité de Régulation Professionnelle de la Publicity, told The Guardian.
In May, following the release of the Eckhaus Latta campaign, designer Alejandro Gomez Palomo unveiled a series of sex-driven ads for fall/winter 2017. Nude male models are seen stroking and licking those draped in his gender-subverting collection for Palomo Spain that includes colorful tailored suits and beaded dresses. The sensual head-turning images were an unapologetic depiction of queer sex.
What sets Eckhaus Latta and Palomo Spain's latest campaigns apart from those pushed by more traditional brands is that these designers are promoting tolerant and progressive images of sexuality.
"We weren't covering people in oil—that's actually their sweat, you know?" Zoe Latta told W. "We've really wanted to play with the principles around advertising, but it had to be authentic and it had to be real people. If it was simulated, it would have really lost the whole intention behind the shoot."
For their first major campaign, Eckhaus Latta wanted to create ads that were "sex-positive, body-positive, and sexuality-positive." Some young people approve of this fresh take on "sex sells," while others feel the brand still went too far.
"I think the act of Eckhaus Latta asserting that the the ads are 'sex-positive' aligns the company with a growing mentality," Erin Hill, a freshman at the University of Maryland, explained to me. "I personally appreciate sex-positivity in art and pop culture and I think Eckhaus Latta treats sex in a delicate way."
For Ebony Iman, a 27-year-old fashion designer, Eckhaus Latta's use of sex as a marketing ploy "felt socially irresponsible."
"I found the ads to be highly offensive, I couldn't get past the pornographic nature of the images to find the real focus—fashion," Iman said.
As The Guardian and many others have pointed out, it may no longer be sex that sells in 2017, but activism and social responsibility. Young people believe that their purchases can make a difference, so they want to support brands that align with their beliefs, especially when things like diversity, reproductive rights, and LGBT rights are in jeopardy. But Eckhaus Latta and Palomo Spain may have figured out how to bring the two worlds together.
"Many brands use heterosexual-centric ideas of sex, often catering to a male gaze," explained Hill. "I think ads like those have been exhausted and Eckhaus Latta ads have helped to usher in a new era of sex marketing."
Text Erica Euse
Photography Heji Shin for Eckhaus Latta