A Backlash to Advertising in Age of Anything Goes the Flap over Latest Calvin Klein Ads May Be a Response to Commercial'excesses.'

Article excerpt

Towering above Times Square, a huge billboard sits cloaked in white canvas. Behind the cover is a picture of two little children in their underwear, standing on a couch, grinning and clowning around.

It's the centerpiece of the ad campaign Calvin Klein pulled last week after critics complained it bordered on the pornographic and could encourage pedophilia.

On the surface, the controversy appeared to be a clash between outraged religious conservatives and the bold, edgy fashion designer who's known for pushing the bounds of sexuality and taste in advertising. But many social critics say the ad and ensuing controversy illustrate a deeper phenomenon: an increasingly aggressive commercialization. From explicit sexual imagery to pictures that evoke tender emotions, such as happy kids at home romping around in their underwear, almost anything goes if it can help sell a product. With the average American now exposed to 3,000 advertising images every day, ad designers perceive a need to shock, stand out, and grab consumers in new ways. Indeed, advertising executives have even co- opted the counter-culture, trying to capitalize on the spirit of the rebel and the nonconformist in their bid to sell products. "It sounds like Calvin Klein is being scapegoated for the general excesses of our commercial culture," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University. "I don't simply mean the near nudity or sexual innuendo; I mean the intensifying emphasis on shock value and the sheer omnipresence of advertising. What's immoral is not necessarily {advertising's} occasional lapse in taste, but its reduction of all of life to ... pursuit of fulfillment in mere products." The controversy prompted Mr. Klein to cancel the unveiling of the billboard in Times Square, and he decided not to send the children to a promotional appearance scheduled at Macy's last Thursday. But he went ahead with an appearance by supermodel Christy Turlington. Many of the people waiting in line to get her autograph had seen the controversial ads the day before in The New York Times and several magazines. While only one person agreed that the photos of the children verged on pornography, a few thought they were "creepy." But most people saw no problem with the pictures, thinking they were sweet and playful, and likening them to family snapshots. Still, many of them also believed the pictures could be seen as questionable when viewed in the context of the larger advertising culture. "I can see how a concerned parent might see it as child pornography, considering what's going on the Internet and all," says Lolly Enriques, a student at Fordham Law School here. "But I'm not a pedophile, so I just see it as innocent children. …