Fashion ads: art or pornography?

Today’s topic for discussion is fashion advertising campaigns, particularly controversial ones. Do you feel these are justified in the interests of promoting a brand (no news is bad, just spell my name right)? Or do some cross the line between marketing and malfeasance? Do you think that some campaigns diminish the reputation of apparel producers among consumers in that some of us fail to exercise good taste? Or, is nothing sacred and everything fair game? Then, there’s the question of art; few would deny advertising is also art. Art is often controversial; it is supposed to move people to thought and introspection, being as some propose, a mirror shard. Or is some art too objectionable?

The matter of controversial fashion ad campaigns has been roused anew by Wrangler’s “We Are Animals” ads. The blogosphere is in an uproar over photos and video of what’s described as misogynistic depictions of bruised and murdered women floating like so much detritus in bogs bringing new meaning to the term “killer jeans”. One said:

“So let’s connect the dots here – Wranglers are worn by cowboys. Cowboys like to shoot things. People who shoot things go hunting. People hunt animals. People are animals. Therefore, we shall all wear Wranglers and go headhunting.”

Where do you draw the line between campaigns with controversial graphic images and art -particularly in apparel marketing? And what of free speech? When I see things like this, I have to remind myself that the first amendment isn’t intended to protect speech you like but that which you find abhorrent. Still, I can’t deny I was chilled by the video of hunters lurking in the trees; most cowboys I know are modern day knights in shining armor and this depiction of them made me sad. I don’t know what cowboys think of the ads but I can’t help but think campaigns like this leave more fodder for consumers to heave at us. What do you think? Aside from likely misogynistic interpretations, should Wrangler have exercised better judgment if for no other reason than that the ads could be interpreted as demeaning their core customer?

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  1. Joseph Stewart says:

    Ryan Mcginley is an art photographer who also does commercial work. His fine art photography typically features some nudity and sexual content. His early work was mostly Nan Goldin rip-off snapshot photography of his friends getting wasted and having sex. He is the youngest artist to have been exhibited at the Whitney (2002). Then his photos of swimmers from the 2004 Olympics made him really famous.

    It’s edgy (see other ad campaigns by McGinley…), sure, but it’s not a big deal. Americans are of course offended by this but it’s meant for Europe – specifically France apparently. You should see what else they show on TV there!!! And Bruce Weber has done plenty of creepy stuff that predates this by decades.

    My problem with this type of criticism is that when people look at this it is very easy to say “MYSOGINIST!!!” (Particularly because Ryan is gay). What about the way that women are generally portrayed in mainstream film or on prime-time television!? The subliminal normalization of the degradation of women is way more insidious than these types of obviously shocking ads.

  2. bethany says:

    Well, I think the Wrangler jeans ad is much to do about nothing. I had a hard time even seeing the photos because they were so dark. But I got the impression that the models were deer and it was a play on how barbaric hunting is. If you were hunting a person then it would be considered murder (hence why everyone is freaking out about those photos) but if it is a deer then it is ok? That is what I thought the spread was saying.

    As for fashion photography vs porn, I figure if there are no children involved then live and let live.

  3. J C Sprowls says:

    When I read that this was the ad campaign in France, I threw up my hands and said: “Yeah. I get it.” Then, I watched the ad for Orangina on YouTube. I found nothing offensive in that commercial. I thought it was cute and funny. But, then, I’m used to French TV, newspaper, magazines, etc.

    Though, I do see the point you question: can being in too much of a rush to appeal to a new demographic compromise your existing customer base? Absolutely.

    But, these ads aren’t rushing to a new customer base, chasing daylight in precarious fashion. These ads are evolving with a consistent demographic that continues to buy Wrangler – the 16-25 crowd. In France, the customers age out of that particular “costume” category (Cowboy drag is considered a fetish in France, much like Goth, Cosplay, etc.)

    So, Wrangler isn’t alienating the 26-30 year-old hanger on. These ads would not alienate that segment of the buying population (slim, btw). It may not inspire them to buy. But, then, that segment probably isn’t buying in that venue, anymore, either.

  4. dosfashionistas says:

    When I was young I would have applauded shocking ads such as this. Now, on the verge of old age, I am appalled by it. Not because it is shocking or because of the nudity, but because I know that the mind can become accustomed to seeing things, to the point that what is shocking becomes commenplace. Images like this should not be wasted on advertising, lest we not care when we see the real thing on the news.

    I have been very glad to see that showing images of women as victims seems to have passed out of fashion in magazine ads. Actually, when you think about it, this campaign is really old hat…It just takes things a little further than most of the magazine ads did.


  5. SM says:

    We are Animals. Interesting concept, but we don’t want to be DEAD animals. How about a pack of humans in Wranglers howling at the moon? Someone curled up sleeping like a cat in their comfortable denim? Plenty of other ways to go with it, rather than hunted and dead. I don’t mind the “deer in the headlights” shot, (haven’t we all felt like that once) but leave it at that.

    In response the comment, I seriously doubt even 2% of the people who say this is misogynistic have any idea who took the photograph, who the photographer is and would have no idea he is gay either. Women are denigrated in film and tv and it’s not right, but these Wrangler woman are hunted and dead, big difference. I don’t care where it’s made for, I don’t think the French would like the Hunted and Dead concept either.

    I’m sure Ryan is a great photographer and I imagine he was paid by Wrangler (or parent company) to take the photographs the art director wanted taken. So don’t take it too personally!

    Ads are designed to sell a product. But this ad campaign does not sell anything and does not make Wrangler edgy, it makes a mistake.

  6. Karen C says:

    Hmmm, can’t for the life of me understand why this ad campaign would make me want to buy these pants. I’ve worked in advertising and PR, so it’s not like I don’t understand messages under the message. But this? If I was Wrangler, I never would have given the OK on that campaign.

  7. Joseph Stewart says:

    This ad is oviously not telling people to hunt and kill women. I doubt that because of this ad anyone is going to go act on that type of impulse. It might be in bad taste but no worse than the Calvin Klein ads from 15 years ago or whenever – those ads were not encouraging child pornography.

    However advertising and the media in general constantly and consistently portray women in everyday contexts as unintelligent, incapable, weak and emotional – all attributes which contribute to the the normalization of the disenfranchisement of women. It’s a little bit like people saying we are in a post-racial society because we have a black man running for president. The opposite side of that arguement says that a black presidential candidate is a problem because it obscures the fact that racism is still prevalent and institutionalized.

    Knowing the background behind Mcginley’s work might help us understand why the ad agency came up with this type of spot. His work is typically very edgy and they probably wanted to come up with a concept that would fit that. (BTW, The reason I mentioned that he’s gay is that gay artists are historically routinely accused of misogyny anyway, haha.)

  8. Gail says:

    How about the pedophilic ads by American Apparel? Big whoop that the models are over 18–you rarely see an ad of theirs that doesn’t have some reiteration of a young female in a spread eagle.


  9. Marketa says:

    Very clever advertising campaign. Regardless of it’s intended market, it is generating tons of buzz.
    I get the concept, and even find it interesting. We ARE animals, aren’t we? We are hunting and are hunted.

    People should direct their criticisms at more pressing “offenses” rather then silly advertisement. Are they up in arms screaming misogyny when they see the images of innocent civilians killed in wars?

    Sorry, did not mean to get political here.

  10. Nyla Poser says:

    I haven’t seen the ad, I’m not familiar with the photographer, but I have, for years, wondered what about fashion ads where the models sit with knees wide apart, inviting crotch shots, looking they are trashed from a night of drinking and drugs, falling into a car with the photo even blurry to further make a point, makes women want to buy that particular piece of clothing. If it’s art, then put it in a museum; if it’s a clothing ad, then please use something that I can actually see and use.

  11. Valerie Burner says:

    Have I missed something lately- when did animal cruelty become “art”??? What Guillermo Vargas did to that dog is the very same thing that Hitler did to millions of people in WW II in the concentration camps. It would have been far more “artistic” if he had chained himself to that wall and was not given any food, and was not able to speak to ask anyone for anything to eat. I have the perfect title for it too: “The Starving Artist”…

  12. Valerie Burner says:

    Kathleen, I think that this form of “advertising” goes beyond misogynistic, and is more than just demeaning. I looked at the photos, but couldn’t even read the articles. When one gazes through a magazine or looks up at buses and billboards, does one REALLY want to be reminded of horrible events that have happened to them or their loved ones? Not me. The photos made me sick, because I just found out this year that the man who stalked me in a state park tortured and killed at least five people in state parks from here to Florida and cut them up. Imagine seeing his face on t.v. Imagine seeing ads that look just like your nightmares. This goes beyond mere controversy and is insensitive and cruel to anyone who has been through anything like that.

  13. Joseph Stewart says:

    While I understand your point of view Valerie, if we were to censor all advertising that reminded anyone of horrible events that have happened to them or their loved ones it would not exist. And if we censor things selectively, well…who gets to be the censor?

  14. Deanna says:

    I wonder if we are becoming desensitized to the “sex sells” concept, and they have moved on to another emotion that will bind a product image to our psyche, horror. Images that recall a really strong memory, really get your attention. Particularly fearful ones.
    I actually liked the last image, with the woman hiding in the grasses, or trees or whatever. It just looked really interesting to me. But I would respond to the company better if their name was posted at a gallery “this artist is sponsored by…” But of course there would be less people seeing it, which defeats the purpose.
    I find it annoying that ads for jeans must have topless models. The jeans must be really hot and uncomfortable to require one to strip down on top just to bear it. Or maybe the people who buy these jeans always get picked to be on the “skins” team?

  15. Oxanna says:

    I didn’t watch the ads, admittedly. But the premise chills me to the bone, a la Valerie’s comment. I shudder to write of it, but I think there WAS a killer once who did just what’s being portrayed in these commercials. It ain’t art. It’s sadism. “Edgy” does not define art, it defines edginess. Concentration camps haven’t been around for a while in the Western world; why don’t we try those? That’d be “edgy” and “attention-getting”. I’m sure you could even find someone to call it “art”.

    Fashion advertising’s overall tone of objectification and misogyny is one reason I hate buying fashion magazines.

  16. Joseph says:

    I really think we can’t enter into intelligent debate when people comment on material that they admittedly have not seen. Important points are: The copy “WE ARE ANIMALS” in that context might mean something different to the French than it means to us. It might mean nothing. The overall narrative of the spots is not clear either.

    Nothing is more frustrating to me than people who have opinions that limit the expression of others when they haven’t even taken the time to view what they’re supposed to have an opinion on.

  17. Valerie Burner says:

    Joseph, I understand your viewpoint, and I don’t want there to be censorship either. However, we as a society need to draw the line as to what is appropriate in advertising and what is not. If the photographer wanted to depict this series as art, then it should be bought and displayed on a collector’s wall or placed in a gallery. Shame on Wrangler for using it as an ad campaign- whether it be in France or on the moon- it still depicts the hunting down and the killing of a human being. You can’t tell me that that shot of the feet with the torn-up jeans was anything short of a crime scene photo. I wore too-long jeans for years throughout my teens, and they never got torn up like those were. I don’t even think it’s the photos themselves that is so controversial here- I believe it is the implication of the devaluation of a human life, and the process of that. Let’s just look at it in a different way, since most of the women on here see it as misogyny: What if the girl(s) was(were) replaced in the ads by gay men? (Now, please gay men, don’t get mad at me here- my deceased step-son was gay, and I have a ton of gay friends.) The “cowboys” hunting down the men, the look of fear in the man’s eyes as the car was approaching him, and finally, the bare feet with the torn-up jeans that looked as though they had spent about four hours running through the woods… Does this still look like art or a hate crime scenario? Personally, I don’t know how many women could look at that ad and even realize that it was for Wrangler jeans. What was the slogan, “I wouldn’t want to be caught dead without my Wrangler jeans”? Certain subjects are inappropriate for advertising, and by trying to get “edgier and edgier”, society is also becoming more and more tasteless and disrespectful of life itself. What’s next, Barney showing snuff films to preschoolers on PBS???

  18. Joseph says:

    I have the feeling that you haven’t seen much TV from Europe. I’m sure you would be outraged at a lot of the content.

    How would you identify these “gay men” in your theoretical ad? It is a comparison that just doesn’t make sense.

    At any rate, I did not read that image as a crime scene photo. In the preceding image we see a woman looking like a deer in headlights. My thought was that she was hit by a car and dead on the side of the road.

    I also don’t get any “hunting” necessarily from the TV spot. It’s all about interpretation.

    Do I not see some men in this picture?

  19. ioanna says:

    Wow that is a really really big subject for discussion. Is there morality in advertising? Should there be?
    It’s a pretty complicated issue, including freedom of speech. Freedom of speech only works if it protects that which we oppose or that is unpopular. But I’m not sure that freedom of speech does come into play here. I mean, we’re not arguing whether objectionable advertising campaigns should be banned, although I remember hearing about Italy banning the use of children in ads a while back (did you guys hear about that, correct me if I’m wrong) which I found interesting.
    I think advertising is by its very nature and core and history both manipulative and exploitative. It exploits both the audience and the people in the advertising itself. The only difference is the people participating in the production of the ads are willing participants while the audience is mostly exposed to the ads without their consent, I mean I avoid watching live television because I hate the ads but even driving down the street there’s the billboards, it’s all ubiquitous and unavoidable in the end of the day. Advertising is 99% lies. It’s telling you whatever the advertisers think you need to hear to buy their product. (I feel sick every time I see those Shell-cares-for-the-environment ads and the people who willingly stand up on my screen and lie for a paycheck on behalf of a major polluter.)
    I’m not really sure if this particular ad is so much more offensive in the end of the day than all the other crap we are exposed to. If most of the news we get are in the best case scenario meaningless how can we expect advertising to rise up to a higher moral standard?
    Either way IMHO this ad is pretty idiotic. It falls into a category of so-called art I see a lot, the kind that pretends to be clever and caustic but really is just lazy and uninspired and at the end of the day void of any real meaning or talent. Sure you can call it art if you want but I think this is to art as printing t-shirts is to fashion design. />end rant :)

  20. Eric H says:

    I realize that I am not a member of the intended demography for these ads. That said, I really feel sorry for those that are. The campaign illustrates everything argued in this Slate piece, the Decline of Fashion Photography. Among what is wrong: the photographer thinks he is doing art, he forgets about the commerce side of what he is doing, and sometimes fails to get the product into the photograph. But at least it’s a step up from the HIV-infected heroin addict look of the 90s.

    I’ve looked at the photographer’s portfolio. I don’t see misogyny so much as I see sterility. In an attempt to avoid looking like Sears catalog, he uses nudity the same way others might use a strobe or a flood light, i.e. as a common tool rather than a subject. “Hmmm, this is boring, let’s try it naked. Aha, now it’s art!” Nude teenagers who aren’t even interacting with each other except accidentally – um, what’s wrong with that picture? Anyone? Bueller? His work is a mixture of gritty reality tempered by bored post-modernism and devoid of intelligence or a vision of what could or should be. If this be “edgy”, I’ll stick to something nearer the center, please. Wake me when it’s over.

    As to the Wrangler ad, doesn’t it strike anyone else as odd that this campaign is supposedly aimed at a French audience, yet the copy is in English? “We are animals.” This is France, where there are government ministries charged with keeping foreign language adaptations from polluting the Mother Language. I smell manure.

    And I still can’t find the one that supposedly has cowboys hunting the models.

  21. J C Sprowls says:

    The thing about art is that it’s like Yoda said about the dark forest to Luke Skywalker: “You take in only what you carry with you.”
    Every perception/objection/praise will always be based on personal experiences and personal baggage. Self-awareness will always remain, cathartic.

    To Valerie’s point about re-staging the shoot as gay men: I don’t read the torn cuff on the jeans as a chase through the woods. I read it as wearing out the jeans because it’s the “fur” these animals have.

    But, if I saw blood, ropes, or a fencepost in the image, I probably couldn’t help but be reminded of Matthew Shepard’s (who was a chat buddy, btw) murder. The truth is, I would have to confront my feelings about that situation. And, it would make me view the art in context different than you would or Matthew’s mother would. That’s the point: to make you think.

    My criticism, though, is that the majority of objections to art come from crowds experiencing “group think” that have not yet processed the information. The level of processing is evident to me due to the lack of personal context in the response. I have yet to hear an individual rise in the crowd and say: “this reminds me of … and it evokes “. Instead, we hear broad statements, like “not suitable for children”.

    {Yes, I recall the Maplethorpe debates. And, I was highly unimpressed when I saw the exhibit for all the verbose statements made. It was, well, underwhelming compared to the hype.}

    It’s a parent’s prerogative to shelter a child while helping them to develop coping mechanisms. I get that it’s tough to do that when you’re immersed in culture with too much inbound information. The frustration, though, is misplaced and misdirected.

    If children haven’t witnessed a bad experience, then they’re not going to project that experience onto the images they see. They’re coming at it with a clean slate, no pre-conceptions, no context. If art makes one think, wouldn’t one response be to turn to the child and decide if it were time to teach a lesson by sharing a story about a personal experience?

    I fail to understand how the people generating the art can be held accountable for the observer’s perception. If the content is offensive, don’t look. If the material is objectionable, don’t consume. I think we, as a society, give away too much of our personal power.

  22. sahara says:

    Folks, get a grip. Yes, this ad isn’t tasteful, but the perceptions about it are curious.

    Women wear Wranglers too, so it’s interesting that so many of us saw the implication of rape and misogyny, in an ad that didn’t portray that at all. The live spot doesn’t even depict a man in it.

    Knowing Ryan’s work, what he may be saying is that in “we are animals”, it is WOMEN who are predators, although in the case of female animals, they are either securing food for, or protecting their young––or eliminate a rival during mating season. How many times have I seen that?

    As one in the predatory field of high fashion publishing, his perspective in this tastelessly edgy ad makes sense to me. Maybe some of my female associates can’t say it––but I’m sure, on occasion, they’d LOVE to wring my neck and leave me in the mud somewhere––and hopefully, I’ll be wearing better jeans than Wrangler, when I’m found.

    We have a hard time seeing ourselves portrayed as victimizers, although we can be. If not, all those mean girl/gossip/women shows wouldn’t be so popular.

    And that means this ad will work for it’s intended market––the age group of mean/gossip girls, who don’t see themselves as misogynist victims, but cougars-in-training, who’ll get what they want, and eliminate their rivals. At least a gay male photog sees women as empowered, even if it IS predatory.

    AS for a young straight man? Check out the EKCO manufacturing ad, featuring a factory of bikini-clad girls, smiling and making their clothing––THAT’S misogyny! Portraying me as a mind-less idiot who’d love nothing more, than to sew his clothes with next to nothing on.

  23. Valerie Burner says:

    Joseph- Yes, I probably would be shocked by some of the things in Europe. When I was there in ’84 all I ever saw on the pensione’s one TV were reruns of Dallas and Dynasty! They loved them. Now, I prefer to think of Europe in terms of their Eurodance music. I can hardly get through a day without it. Yay Sash! Rock Bottom Scooter! :)

    JC, The dog image really did tear me apart because I had just put my 15-year-old Golden Retriever to sleep, and she wasn’t just a dog- she was a therapy dog who brought joy to many hospital and nursing home patients. It broke my heart because she was starving also, but not from lack of food- she just could no longer utilize her nutrients. The deer-in-the-headlights… Gut reaction? That poor guy that escaped from Jeffrey Dahmer, only to be returned to him by the police… Matthew Shepard crossed my mind as well. I was surprised you mentioned him. So senseless…and the torn-up jeans with the feet? Any one of the millions of people who have or will end up like that one day.

    I suppose if I saw those images 100 more times, they would lose their effect on me. I hope that never happens. I don’t want to become one of those people who see a guy get hit by a car and leave him lying in the road without doing a thing to help him, or listen to the screams of somone being raped or killed and not “get involved”.

    BTW, JC, thanks for your recommending British Fabrics. You don’t have any other sources of good wools and cashmeres here in the US do you?

  24. Jess L. says:

    The first impression that I get when I see those images is, crime scene photos. Even creepier is the old rope logo. If they want to get a new audience then at least redesign the logo or better yet change the name all together.

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