CALVIN KLEIN, LEVI'S ADS? WELL, THAT'S SHOW BUSINESS

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When I was a young regional publicist at Universal and Twentieth Century Fox Studios a number of years ago, I was often encouraged by bosses to garner as much press and public attention as I could muster to promote films they knew were "turkeys" that could not withstand critical scrutiny.

Those movies got little ad support but lots of hype, and studio heads encouraged us not to be overly concerned with restraint or accuracy. The objective was to build quick awareness, make some money and withdraw the picture before public opinion killed it.

That sort of tactic of being deliberately outrageous, which goes all the way back to P.T. Barnum, has been much in my mind since watching the advertising antics of Levi Strauss and Calvin Klein.

Levi Strauss became the focus of considerable media attention when it placed khaki pants that sell for $55 under plastic shields in 40 Manhattan bus shelters to kick off its new campaign for Dockers.

Mr. Secunda is a professor of marketing at the School of Management and Business, Adelphi University, Garden City, N.Y.

To hardly anyone's surprise, several of the pants ads were instantly assaulted, and the pants swiped from the advertising panels, owned by Gannett Outdoor Advertising. Levi Strauss was so certain that the displays would be vandalized that they designed the ads to reveal the pants' outline after they were stolen, along with a message, "Apparently they were very nice pants."

A Levi Strauss marketing executive acknowledged that the company had anticipated the campaign would incite pilferage, but said that "some buzz would be created by a theft or two" and "it wouldn't be entirely negative."

A Gannett executive also admitted that they had considered the likelihood of such robberies, and had "factored the vandalism" into their contract. Then, reacting to the furor, and accusations that they had created outdoor product displays that were deliberately designed to inspire criminal behavior, Gannett removed the Dockers ads.

Only a few weeks earlier, designer Calvin Klein launched his campaign to promote his line of jeans featuring teen-age models responding to searching questions from a lecherous off-screen male voice. It triggered cries of outrage and disgust.

Klein claimed to be surprised by the reaction to the campaign, insisting that he was merely trying to express a positive message about "the spirit, independence and inner worth of today's young people." By the time he withdrew the campaign, the controversy had dramatically increased brand awareness of the Calvin Klein product line among his young target market.

Unlike the motion picture industry of yesterday, companies like Levi Strauss and Calvin Klein don't market products whose names are isolated from their own. The public tends to take a negative view about the corporation's umbrella identity when the media produce hostile coverage such as Levi's and Klein have received recently. It is not enough for these marketers to launch ad campaigns designed to win the attention of their most immediate target audiences if they are alienating other potential consumers who react negatively to their irresponsible promotional behavior.

The public is becoming smarter every day. Marketers must consider the long-term as well as the short-term benefits or drawbacks of a clever promotional program based on winning additional media and public attention through the use of hype. Too often, ideas like Levi Strauss' Dockers campaign sound great when the creative team is kicking concepts around in the conference room. But they should carefully scrutinize those clever ideas to make certain that the advertising doesn't circle around at a later date and become a source of embarrassment for the brand and the corporation that launched it.

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