'Gossip Girl' and Others Branding Sex in Ads

"We wanted to create a provocative, unconventional campaign that resonates with Gossip Girl's sophisticated, media savvy young adult fans," the network statement said. "By utilizing creative statements made by third-party sources and outlets, this new campaign speaks directly to our target audience in a way they will appreciate."

Chapin questioned whether the "Gossip Girl" campaign was giving its young viewers an unrealistic view of sexuality and maturity.

"It's normalizing the sexualization of young people," Chapin said. "The models look very young and they probably are not, but it's just normalizing what is acceptable behavior."

Sex: An Advertising History

Every generation has had its own cast of sexually charged icons and brands that tested the limits of what was acceptable, Perle said.

"We're all creatures of our culture and in his way Elvis was as shocking to a generation of parents as these ads have been to another one," Perle said. "Have we been progressing down the food chain of hyper-sexuality? Anyone who's seen a Bratz doll can say the answer."

"There have been really big brands that have kind of done the kind of 'faux-porno' approach in the past and brands for decades kind of flirted with different ways of draping sexuality over their products," Creamer said.

In 1995, Calvin Klein Jeans ads featured models as young as 15 in a campaign that mimicked the "picture set" pornography of the 1960s. The U.S. Justice Department subsequently launched an investigation into whether the campaign had violated child pornography laws, and the designer later recalled the ads. The controversy turned the jeans into the year's "must-have" clothing item.

"The commercials looked like they were shot in a basement with a handheld camcorder and there was a voice that might as well have been a pedophile," Creamer said. "I remember kind of getting a sick feeling watching them."

The clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire in 1997 for showing nude and near-nude models in its catalogue, "A&F Quarterly." The company shut down the catalogue in 2003.

While the Calvin Klein ads faced a backlash from consumers and watchdog groups, Chapin said American Apparel and "Gossip Girl" ads aren't as controversial.

"The difference here is that times have changed," he said. "I'm not seeing the backlash and that might be out there, but kind of interesting me is ... by going the viral route, you're just going directly to the consumers without striking up any kind of reaction from the parent."

Despite the outcry in response American Apparel's sex-fueled ad campaigns and the naughty teens of "Gossip Girl," racy and controversial ads are still a "pretty safe bet," Creamer said.

"It's probably pretty safe if you're willing to go out on a limb and do something like what BMW did or what American Apparel does," Creamer said. "It's also getting people to talk about this stuff -- probably one of the best, most effective, most surefire ways to do that is something controversial."

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