June 24, 2009 -- Calvin Klein has replaced a provocative billboard that loomed over New York City's Soho neighborhood. A giant 50-foot ad of a four-way sex scene has made way for a soaking model in a string bikini.
The original ad shocked and titillated the now family-oriented community with a jean-clad group of young men and a woman. Three of them were entangled half-clothed, the heterosexual couple kissing.
The new billboard drew kinder critics.
"I think it's a good thing," Rae Vermeulen, 36, told the New York Daily News.
"The old one bothered people. It was a little too explicit with the threesome," she said. "You didn't even notice the jeans as much as what was going on with the people."
"This is a lot better than the full blatant threesome they had before," said public relations specialist Rebecca Edmondson, 29.
"I do like the bathing suit on her. It's cute!"
When the first billboard went up, Calvin Klein defended it as "a very sexy campaign that speaks to our targeted demographic."
Neighbors said they found the ad so outrageous they vowed not to buy Calvin Klein products again. Others called it "disgusting."
"Not only the billboard, but a company -- a corporate giant in America -- feels it appropriate to put a semi-nude photograph in a major billboard in a high-traffic area where tens of thousands of children see this kind of activity going on," said Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, a Christian organization that promotes preservation of traditional values.
"If it were going on in the back of a parking lot with steamed windows, they would be arrested, and yet they broadcast it to a whole city," he told ABCNews.com.
The organization launched an appeal on its Web sites – twomillionmoms.org and twomilliondads.org, whose members sent off more than 15,000 e-mail complaints to the company.
Tapping Into Cultural Outrage
Calvin Klein's in-house agency, CRK Advertising, has a history of tapping into that cultural outrage.
In 1981, a coquettish Brooke Shields told consumers, "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
And just last year, one of its ads starring Eva Mendes was banned because of the hint of a nipple.
Retail sales of products sold worldwide under the Calvin Klein brand names generated more than $5 billion in revenue in 2007. Its 55 licensing agreements for fragrances, handbags and even furniture bolster $156 million of those sales.
Calvin Klein Ads and Porn
Shields and actor Mark Wahlberg, who modeled male underwear, were the early poster children for the designer's haute couture line. Photography was shot by Bruce Weber, known for his equally sexualized work for Abercrombie & Fitch.
Consumers protested in 1995 when the company planned to air 30-second interviews with young men and women in front of cheap wood paneling as an unseen adult asked provocative questions about their physiques.
The ads were dropped after television stations refused to air them, and retailers threatened to drop the Calvin Klein label. The FBI even investigated the company for potential child pornography charges.
But the campaign didn't hurt the bottom line. In 2003, Calvin Klein was sold to Philip Van Heusen for more than $600 million. And that didn't even include the jeans line, which had been sold earlier to the Warnaco Group.
But some of their younger consumers are less judgmental about gender roles and have a more tolerant view of their sexuality, embracing gay marriage in larger numbers than their parents and, perhaps, seeing a threesome or even foursome as no big deal.
Many couldn't understand what all the "commotion" was about. One commenter on New York magazine's Web site declared, "All I can see are beautiful people having a good time…It's not the advertising that makes little children confused, it's the uptight handling with sex-related issues in general of their parents."
Even those who have never considered a ménage a trois (or more) didn't seem shocked by the notion that more is merrier.
"I think that many younger people are OK with threes and fours, theoretically," said Lauren, a 28-year-old New York City teacher who did not want her last name used. "In college, many people engage in threesomes either with three friends, strangers or even their main partner and then a friend."
But some say Calvin Klein, whose earlier ads seem tame by comparison, had hit a cultural nerve.
"It's just porn from a guy who's done kiddie porn," said Bob Garfield, ad critic at Advertising Age and co-host of National Public Radio's, "On the Media." "If you pay attention to it, you're just doing his advertising for him."