July 29, 2008 -- Ad agencies and their corporate clients have found ways to pair just about everything -- from skimpy underwear to hamburgers -- with sex. Sex, the saying goes, sells.
But what happens when a marketing campaign crosses the line and toys with the notion of underage sex?
Underage sex -- suggested, simulated or otherwise -- is being used to sell clothes, cars and a hit television shows:
In one ad, a girl wearing only American Apparel underwear can be seen crawling between a man's legs. In the next shot, the model is licking the crotch of the man's underwear, glancing seductively at the camera.
An international ad -- not seen in the United States -- features a Lolita-like girl shot from the shoulders up, her blond hair splayed across the page. The ad copy reads "You know you're not the first." The product: BMW used cars.
For the second season of "Gossip Girl," promos have graduated from salacious sayings like "OMFG" to racier ads that depict members of the cast posed suggestively with negative reviews plastered over them.
Ads like these are addressing sexuality more frankly than ever, and some people have decided to take a stand against the hyper-sexualization of pop culture. But others -- including experts and people who work in the advertising industry -- say it's too late to stop the trend.
"The rub among the adults is 'is this good taste?'" said ad executive John Klein. "Given more of a traditional background one would have to say no. But, then, it doesn't matter anymore."
Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, said advertisers are selling more than a product: They are marketing a complete "lifestyle" to teens and adults.
"Kids are exposed at younger and younger ages to more and more sexually graphic material," Perle said. "When you show an ad that showcases shortcuts to those things, you're not just selling underwear or T-shirts, you're selling whole ways of being."
Media creates norms for audiences of all ages, and when television and magazines depict a warped image of sexuality, inappropriate behaviors follow, Perle said.
"You show an ad of a girl looking like she's just had sex or about to have sex in rumpled sheets wearing a certain type of underwear, that creates a model of what's OK for a kid," Perle said.
Although sex may be the "greatest shortcut to a 60-second ad or a one-impression ad," Perle said advertisers shouldn't be permitted to exploit underage sexuality.
"I'd just say to the creators of these ads, 'Put your 12-year-old girl or boy in front of them and see if you repeat them,'" she said. "That should be the sanity check."
American Apparel Bares All
American Apparel founder Dov Charney is a man of many contradictions -- he's an iconoclast, an attention-grabber and a savvy businessman, Klein said.
Klein should know -- as managing partner of Klein Mickaelian Partners, the businessman worked closely with Charney, the figure behind American Apparel's racy, homegrown ads.
"It's pretty easy to get attention, but it's not that easy to get some relevance. It really takes some poetry," Klein said. "He's very political. The exposure has been remarkable -- and he's kind of sexually oriented."
Klein's firm originally developed a campaign for American Apparel that portrayed the company as an alternative to bigger corporations that produced their clothes in sweatshops around the world.
Now, though, American Apparel's ads are more sexually suggestive than political.
While he does not believe the American Apparel advertisements are "groundbreaking," Advertising Age magazine editor-at large Matthew Creamer said Charney's team develops consistent ads that "telegraph the brand." American Apparel now does all of its advertising development in-house.
"They've created a really consistent campaign that you can sort of see from a mile away," he said. "You always know when you're looking at an American Apparel ad, aside from the kind of homage to pornography that's going on."
Klein attributed the success of Charney's sexually explicit ads to the climate of the youth market. "All the rules are being broken," he said.
"The market segment to which his ads appeal has lost all sense," Klein said. "All morality, all the good taste, all the propriety is gone."
Klein called the ads a reflection of American Apparel's target audience.
"I don't think we can really blame Dov -- he's an opportunist," he said.
Despite the overall trend of hyper-sexuality in advertising, Perle said adults and children alike should question American Apparel's lewd campaigns.
"What's one to do when they see an ad for American Apparel who would make Lolita look like she could apply for Social Security?" Perle said.
American Apparel did not return numerous calls for comment.
Cutting Through the Advertising Noise
Though BMW's target market -- older, affluent and conservative -- might skew differently than that of a brand like American Apparel, Creamer said, brazen sexuality serves to draw younger customers into the fold and stimulate older customers.
Creamer attributed the BMW ad's racy message to the character of the company's international market.
"The standards are sort of different," he said. "Definitely in London and in the UK the standards are more lenient, and sort of risky advertising is expected, I think. You wouldn't see something like that from BMW in the U.S."
Even established companies have to make a name for themselves in a crowded marketplace, where consumers can be overwhelmed by the volume of advertising they encounter every day.
"A lot of times the controversy at work is kind of needed to cut through all the noise that's out there and get people to pay attention to the brand," Creamer said. "It's a tradeoff that's worth making."
BMW representatives could not be reached for comment.
'Promoting a Lifestyle'
John Chapin, an associate professor of communications at Penn State University, said he has witnessed how shows like "Gossip Girl" shape youth behavior. The show's inherent "cool factor" makes teens want to mimic the behavior of the show's characters, from the clothing they wear to the purses they carry, he said.
"I think the biggest concern from my perspective isn't necessarily the products, it's more the lifestyle," Chapin said. "It's promoting a lifestyle and making something more glamorous."
Chapin, who has researched teenagers and their responses to public health messages, said ads for "Gossip Girl" have blurred the lines of what teenagers believe to be appropriate behaviors.
A statement from the CW, which broadcasts the show, asserted the network's commitment to connecting with young viewers through a noticeable campaign.
"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."