Why Calvin Klein ads still get people talking

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 1/18/2024, 4:27 p.m.
Just a few days into 2024, Jeremy Allen White’s bare, muscled body — clad in Calvin Klein briefs — became …
A Calvin Klein campaign ad featuring Kendall Jenner is seen inside the Palladium Praha shopping mall in Prague, Czech Republic, on May 18, 2020. Mandatory Credit: Milan Jaros/Bloomberg/Getty Images

By Joan Kennedy, CNN

(CNN) — Just a few days into 2024, Jeremy Allen White’s bare, muscled body — clad in Calvin Klein briefs — became the year’s first viral sensation.

The brand unveiled the ads on January 4, instantly prompting a swell of online chatter that intensified after the images of the actor were plastered on Calvin Klein’s iconic billboard in the center of New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Throw in a video ending with a dozen doves bursting into the sky alongside White spread on a couch, wearing nothing but his cotton stretch briefs and sneakers, and the campaign became a full-blown media moment.

The strategy was classic Calvin Klein, a brand which has been synonymous with sexy, conversation-starting campaigns since the 1970s.

And the data shows it’s an approach that works. According to data insights company Launchmetrics, in just 48 hours the White ads generated $12.7 million in media impact value (MIV). For comparison, their research also found Bottega Veneta’s Pre-Spring 2024 campaign featuring paparazzi shots of Kendall Jenner and A$AP Rocky generated $2.8 million in 48 hours.

But the White ads were just the start of the headlines for Calvin Klein. On January 10, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a Calvin Klein advert starring musician FKA Twigs, stating that the images focused on her “physical features rather than the clothing, to the extent that it presented her as a stereotypical sexual object.”

The decision quickly drew backlash, with critics decrying the agency for policing female sexuality and a woman’s body. The ongoing praise for White’s ads — which were not banned — provided a stark contrast. So did the fact that the agency said images of Kendall Jenner from the same campaign were “unlikely to be seen as irresponsible,” which elicited charges of racism from some commenters online.

When contacted by CNN, a spokesperson for the ASA said: “Our ruling was solely about the content of the ads and whether they breached our responsibility and offence rules; the identity and race of the models featured in those ads were not relevant and did not form part of our assessment…”

In response to the ruling, FKA Twigs issued a statement on Instagram which said: “I do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. I see a strong beautiful woman of color whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine.”

Calvin Klein said it had put out similar advertisements in the UK for decades and “a degree of nudity should be expected” in underwear advertising.

The label has a long history of leaning on provocation to sell its mass market staples. Its adverts have featured a topless Kate Moss, an underage Brooke Shields uttering innuendos and Mark Wahlberg grabbing himself. A 2008 perfume ad starring Eva Mendes was banned in the US. But over the past decade, its ads have mostly failed to attract the same level of attention, primarily putting out lackluster group campaigns that were lost in the churn of social media.

The industry, too, has gotten more cautious with advertising. In the face of slumping sales, Victoria’s Secret shed its ultra-sexy image, while missteps from brands like Balenciaga and Zara have shown the danger of a poorly-received campaign.

But as Calvin Klein’s recent brush with virality shows, the right sort of provocation can pay dividends for a brand’s image.

“Brands can’t cancel-proof or bubble wrap their way through life. In this TikTok era, you need to make moments,” said Matt Kissane, executive director at marketing agency Landor.

Right face, right time

At their best, Calvin Klein’s ads have solidified stars as sex symbols. They played a major role in positioning Moss as the queen of heroin chic in the 1990s, and helped Wahlberg move beyond his “Marky Mark” era. Justin Bieber’s campaign in 2015 cemented him as someone for adults to lust after (rumors of a photoshopped bulge notwithstanding) rather than a teenage “Tiger Beat” pin-up.

This latest campaign seems poised to do the same for White, whose star has been on the rise, thanks to his role as an endearing dirtbag chef on the Hulu series “The Bear.” His street style makes regular appearances in men’s magazines GQ and Esquire, and he’s regularly photographed sweaty and shirtless in Los Angeles. Rumors of a relationship with popstar Rosalía, and his latest starring turn in wrestling film “The Iron Claw,” add to the intrigue.

Also, abs.

“Just human instinct, this is a hot campaign,” said Amy Kommatas, head of production for advertising firm Callen. “It got people talking.”

Where many fashion brands are stuck in a bit of a casting rut — hiring a Jenner or Hadid for the inevitable press that follows — this marks White’s first major campaign, creating a sense of newness at a time when constant noise on social media makes it even harder for brands to stand out.

“It was one thing to break out 30 years ago, you could spend enough money to push it out. It’s 100 percent harder now because there’s so much content, so many more eyeballs,” said Allen Adamson, founder of marketing firm Metaforce.

Calvin Klein promoted the campaign from all angles. Besides the billboard, videos and images by Mert Alas pushed across social media, the brand also dressed White for last week’s Golden Globes (where he won the trophy for best actor in a television series, drama) and secured an accompanying Vogue feature on the “formal” Calvin Klein underwear White wore under his suit.

Over the course of the campaign, mentions of Calvin Klein skyrocketed 567 percent higher than average and the brand gained 100,000 followers on TikTok, according to data commissioned by Business of Fashion from consumer intelligence firm Brandwatch.

While the formula may seem simple, pulling it off requires more than a bit of luck.

“For every time somebody gets it right, 20 people get it wrong, and they’re all using the same formula,” said Adamson.

Sex, thighs and regulatory red tape

The FKA Twigs advertisement brought the brand a different sort of attention, going viral only after the images were banned.

Calvin Klein has long walked the line of public acceptability, and critics have slammed the brands’ ads as promoting everything from an unhealthy body image with Moss, to alleging child pornography with a 1995 campaign that showed young models in a wood-paneled basement. (The US Justice Department ended up investigating the campaign, which was pulled, though the brand was able to prove that all models featured were adults.)

Meanwhile, no one besides the ASA seems to be admonishing Calvin Klein over the FKA Twigs ads. In fact, the ban has helped build positive sentiment around the images. According to Launchmetrics, in less than the first 48-hours following the ruling, the FKA Twigs campaign image created $5.2 million in media impact value for Calvin Klein.

As society at large teeters toward conservatism — with women’s rights under attack, particularly in the US — the images ended up prompting conversation around why a man can show his body (not to mention, earn money and status, said Kissane) and a woman is shamed for the same thing.

“It’s disappointing that we’re at this place in our culture where Jeremy Allen White is celebrated, but FKA (Twigs) is policed,” said Kommatas.

For Calvin Klein, both sets of ads are an example of that old adage — there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

“They’ve managed to create the cultural conversation,” said Kissane. “It set the wheels in motion. (Calvin Klein) played its one move and the wheels of the internet are doing the turning.”