Shock factor

Fashion ads: The most controversial fashion campaigns
Fashion | 26 April 2017

Calvin Klein’s 1995 campaign shot by Steven Meisel was criticised for images of young models in sexually provocative poses.

Top image: YSL’s 2002 fragrance campaign featuring Samuel de Cubber was inspired by the 1971 nude portrait of Yves Saint Laurent.

From products to the imagery used to sell them, fashion is often caught up in controversy. And recently we’ve had several. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen Vetements release a pair of scandalous bare butt jeans; witnessed Gucci’s Pre-Fall 2017 campaign spark questions of sincerity over its all black casting and visual ode to soul culture; and NYC brand Eckhaus Latta cause an uproar over its new campaign’s depiction of IRL couples actually having sex.

But these examples pale in comparison to some of history’s most out-there campaigns – like those in the gallery below. And considering the average Londoner is exposed to as many as 5,000 marketing messages a day, it’s no little wonder that brands have historically got creative (and sometimes, employed the shock factor) to cut through the clutter. Deliberately breaking the rules via graphic imagery and blunt slogans, the aim is to get noticed. And if you get enough complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency, you may even get banned.

Here, we take a look back through some of the most controversial ads in fashion.


Controversial advertising is often considered to have been pioneered by Benetton, the Italian clothing retailers which created the line United Colors of Benetton, and its advertisements in the late 1980s. The brand came under particular scrutiny for its campaigns, leading to public outrage and consumer complaints. However, several of Benetton’s advertisements have also been the subject of much praise for raising awareness of significant social issues concerning infringements on human rights, civil liberties, and environmental rights.

Some of the Benetton’s most harrowing campaigns include the haunting image of David Kirby, a HIV/AIDS activist, captured at his deathbed by Therese Frare. The image of a duck covered in oil addressing issues of oil spillage, a soldier holding a human bone, as well as a newborn infant still attached to its umbilical cord, which was one of the most censured visuals in the history of Benetton ads.

Benetton’s 1992 campaign depicting a duck covered in oil addressing pollution and environmental issues.

While some have criticised the most full frontal of campaigns for taking things too far, others have asked whether we should be so shocked at the human body’s representation in advertising imagery. And the banning of others – like United Colours of Benetton’s shocking yet often politically in-tune campaigns – has been questioned as to whether it denotes censorship, rather than public opinion. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one more prevalent than ever with recent campaigns like Eckhaus Latta’s, criticised by some as pornographic; hailed by others for portraying sex in a real way.

Eckhaus Latta SS17 campaign. Photography by Heji Shin.

Elsewhere, the adage “sex sells” has been prevalent in conversations surrounding fashion ads. In the 90s, Calvin Klein was the subject of controversy for its images of young models in sexually provocative poses. Under provocative designer Tom Ford’s reign, Gucci’s ads featured models with pubic hair shaved into the shape of their logo, which the brand was forced to take down in 2003. Ford also collaborated with Terry Richardson to create his 2007 eponymous men’s fragrance campaign, depicting just the body of a nude model with a bottle strategically placed to cover her genitalia. Aside from its explicit nature, critics condemned the images as misogynistic. And during his ‘heyday’, Richardson also shot several campaigns for Benetton’s sister brand Sisley, featuring explicit sexual content and images that were said to glamourise drug use.

Benetton’s sister brand Sisley’s “fashion junkie” ad from 2007 was banned for glamourising drugs


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