Buffeted by criticism over advertising some called child pornography, designer Calvin Klein last week ran a full-page mea culpa ad in The New York Times. Because the ads had been "misunderstood by some" and because the company takes its responsibility to young people seriously, "we will cease running the remainder of this campaign as soon as possible," the Times ad said.
But an Advertising Age analysis found virtually the entire $6 million TV, print and outdoor effort had already run its course, even though the company had said ads had been slated through October.
"The Calvin Klein ads will be pulled from MTV's lineup next week. But they had pretty much been scheduled to be taken off the air next week anyway," an MTV: Music Television spokeswoman said.
"Calvin changes his copy frequently and has plans to do so at the beginning of September," said an outdoor ad company executive who didn't want to be identified. She said the change was scheduled well before the controversy erupted. The TV ads were placed in 10 to 15 spot markets.
Magazines that ran the ads included Spin, Rolling Stone, Elle and YM. While the ads are in the current Spin, they aren't in the other titles' September issues.
Vanity Fair Publisher Mitchell Fox said there was no adverse reaction to the ads in his August issue, and added: "By the time the uproar began, the September issue was on newsstands, and that did not contain the ad anyway. Their schedule with us this year was already completed."
Experts were reluctant to put a dollar value on the free publicity Calvin Klein Inc. received, but "it was a great PR plus for him," said Bob Dilenschneider, CEO of the Dilenschneider Group, New York.
Kansas City, Mo., agency Valentine Radford, using its Word Trends system to scan four major papers for the designer's name, found 10 "hits" for Aug. 7 to 13. For Aug. 21 to 27, that number was up to 36 in USA Today, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.
"The Calvin Klein jeans ads used shock to create extraordinary press," Mr. Dilenschneider said. "These spots did not create a negative image of the product or the designer in the mind of the average consumer. They will only remember his name when they go to the store."
Indeed, an unscientific check of department stores in key cities showed increased interest in the brand by young shoppers last week.
"The message was carried across the country to places that never would have heard of the jeans ads," said Alan Millstein, editor-publisher of The Fashion Network Report, New York. As a result, "he's laughing all the way to the bank."
Mr. Millstein estimated the brand's sales at $100 million last year, vs. $600 million for archrival Guess?
Benetton, the world master of controversial ads, acknowledged waiting for media pickup on a minimal ad buy is a tactic it uses. But Peter Fressola, Benetton Group director of communications, was quick to differentiate between the two companies.
"We cover social issues in our ads ....We would never use sex to exploit children," he said. He also was critical of Calvin Klein Inc.'s statement the campaign's "message about the spirit, independence and inner worth of today's young people" was misunderstood.
"He was disingenuous to say in the Times statement that he was misinterpreted. To say the TV ads especially did not mimic kiddie porn is just not true," Mr. Fressola said.
"I don't think people misinterpreted what he was doing-I think they got it," said Ann Hunt, president of Hunt & Co., New York, a retail and media marketing company. "They got it and they said, don't take me there."
Calvin Klein has done provocative ads since 1980, when a 15-year-old Brooke Shields revealed, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins." What's different now?
"He's taken it too far this time," said Allan Mottus, publisher-editor of The Informationist, New York. "People obviously draw the line at child pornography."
"The heart of the campaign is coercion and exposure and fear and anxiety on the part of the models," said Carol Moog, president of Creative Focus, Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., an advertising consultancy. "The ads convey dominance of an adult over a child and they convey possible sexual abuse. And there's an exposure through the off camera voice-`Turn around; pick up your shirt.' The young person demonstrates a reluctance, an intimidation, a sense of feeling coerced."
Amy Adler, an attorney who often writes about the First Amendment and pornography, said: "The ads do conjure up images of kiddie porn. The children have their legs spread and are in awkward, vulnerable positions. They look like runaways."
"Some of those kids were under the age of 18," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, Tupelo, Miss. He said that since asking the U.S. Justice Department to look into possible legal action against the marketer on child pornography grounds, he has confirmed one of the models is 16 and another is 15.
The Rev. Wildmon said he believes the campaign ended because of retailer pressure-sparked by his group.
The association wrote about 50 stores, including Dayton Hudson Corp. and Federated Department Stores, he said.
Retailers told a different story.
"After reviewing the spots, we made the decision to not be affiliated with any aspect of the campaign-print, TV or otherwise. We made that decision a month ago," said Michael Francis, VP-marketing, Dayton Hudson's department store division.
Still, Calvin Klein jeans late last week ruled the best spot on the floor at the Dayton's in one suburban Minneapolis mall. Displays are rotated, but there was an irony to the situation.
A Federated spokeswoman said Calvin Klein TV ads originally did carry the names of Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Bon Marche, but the stores later requested not to be tagged in the ads.
The controversy crystallized for the public what the clothing industry already knew: The most lucrative jeans target is getting younger, mainly in the 14-to-19-year-old range.
Levi Strauss & Co., the jeans leader with more than $2 billion in sales, recognizes the perils of targeting that market. "Our concern is keeping it relevant.... We want to have an edge, so you have to make judgment calls," said VP-Corporate Marketing Jim Chriss.
Recently, some of those judgment calls have indeed been edgy. A print ad from Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, for 501 button-fly jeans said one reason to buy them is because "it's a dangerous place to put a zipper." A TV spot shows a young man having his nose pierced with a jeans pocket rivet.
"It has to be ....a funny thing. We are not encouraging you to get a rivet put into your nose," Mr. Chriss said.
Contributing to this story: Kemba Johnson, Laura Loro, Keith J. Kelly, Leah Haran, Alice Z. Cuneo and Jeanne Whalen.