Wanted: Dead or Alive?

Mrs Bossa is doffing her paper party crown, and is putting her Serious Hat on.

I’m sure, despite your dear selves, that you haven’t managed to avoid the Superette clothing adverts (below). I’m sure I don’t need to say much more about them, or why they had a lot of people up in arms (I couldn’t include the picture of the lift, as it made me feel a bit sick). The slogan ‘Be Caught Dead in It’ says it all…

Images from campaignbrief.com

Since then, I’ve noticed quite a few posts on ‘offensive’ fashion adverts – I even wrote a brief one myself on the Louise Vuitton S/S 10 campaign – and between Vogue Italia’s ‘oil shoot‘ and CK adverts being accused of glamorising gang rape, fashion seems determined to continue courting controversy.

From http://www.worldofwonder.net
It put me in mind of a project I started when I was studying Art at Goldsmiths College (back in 2001). Younger and feistier, I rather morbidly asked lots of the girls I knew what they were scared of, and asked them to choose images from fashion magazines to be coupled with their quotes. I then embroidered the quotes onto copies of the adverts. Rifling through Vogue, they found images of vulnerable women all too easily!

“I’m scared of being attacked walking alone at night”

“I’m scared of being rejected”

Long ago as my project was, and mild as these images are by comparison, I still think they raise interesting questions about the nature of fashion advertising (not least how women are depicted!). Obviously my project had an agenda, and this interpretation of ‘vulnerability’ could be read more positively as seductive, languorous, pensive, intimate…the list goes on. It’s the potential for interpretation that fascinates me – do you always know what an ad ‘means’?! – something which nudges it beyond fashion photography into the art arena.  

“I’m scared of being hurt”

“I’m scared that I’m not strong enough to defend myself”

Many brands sell a lifestyle as much as (if not more than) an item of clothing, focusing on decadence, youth, social lives, glamour…think of Michael Kors, or even Tommy Hilfiger. Some take the more ‘catalogue approach’, with the emphasis on the clothes. I’m generalising of course, but there’s no denying that the Superette/CK images above still evoke a strong reaction, perhaps because they do neither of those things – take away the logos and all you’re left with is fairly disturbing photographic images. One cynical blogger said that the CK ad being banned made the label ‘edgy’ again, and there’s no denying that this kind of publicity doesn’t tend to do labels much harm…but is it right?

How do you feel about shock tactics as a way of selling clothes?

Do fashion labels have a responsibility for the way they portray women?

Which ad campaigns have you had a strong reaction to? 


27 thoughts on “Wanted: Dead or Alive?

  1. Jaw dropped at those superette ads. I’m not, as you know, that knowledgable about high fashion (is it still called that?) but they do shock me and they are unnecessary and like you say, once you take away the logo you’re just left with a picture which is (hopefully) deeply unpleasant to look at. It seems to be saying that the clothes and looking good in them is more important than anything else, including death and I can’t think that fashion is like that, surely it should enhance life, not be the be all?

    And of course fashion labels have a responsibility for the way they portray women, they have as much influence on women as the celebrities they use to promote their wares and they are often directed at young women so they should not use images of death and rape and they shouldn’t portray women as being vulnerable, even vulnerable in a pretty dress is not something to aspire to.

    And finally, the ad campaigns I have the strongest reactions to these days are those for formula milk but I’m sure that’s not what you’re aiming for! Fashion campaigns tend to pass me by (although they probably don’t, they are probably all embedding themselves in my subconcious, damned things).

    Great blog, again. I think the only people who write about fashion that I will go out of my way to read are you and Hadley Freeman so keep up the good work!

    • Hadley Freeman called herself the ‘Syd Barrett of Ugg boots’ the other day – did
      you see it?!

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response, Lou. You’ve hit on something with your
      point that ‘vulnerable in a pretty dress is not something to aspire to’. I’m so
      tired of the lack of positive reinforcement in all the media aimed at women,
      from weight-loss obsessions to being ‘feminine’. I wish they could be called
      into account.

      You’ll have to tell me more about these formula milk ads – I’ve been trying to
      imagine what they could be…

  2. Ads that use images glamorousing violence, or put women in sexually submissive situations really annoy me. It’s easy to say ‘oh, it’s only an advert’ but these images still reinforce society’s treatment of women as the second sex. Have you ever read Sociological Images? It’s a really good blog that tackles some of these issues… http://contexts.org/socimages

  3. What a really great post Mrs B! Really gets you thinking, I had never seen those ‘corpse ads’ and had to go google the ‘lift’ one. To be honest when things are so in your face like that it doesnt bother me, tasetless yes, but thats it. Mind you I do work in forensic science so seeing real corpses maybe desensatises you. The other add I have seen and rape never crossed my mine, more like big slut at a party LOL! I will tell you what ads do bother me, the American Apparel ones, there is something so sickeningly disturbing about seeing girl who look so young sticking a thong clad bottom in your face – I cant bear to read blogs with their ads. Your project is so interesting and I am fascinated always to see other peoples opinions on things, we often forget that things may offend others. Did you ever see the Nolita ads with the anorexic model? Also there was a bit of outrage regarding the All Saints hanging mannequins – sure you will find a few blog posts via google, will see if I can find you a linkk

  4. I hadn’t actually seen these, how horrid. And personally as shock tactics I don’t think these work – wow, they have objectified women and protrayed them as victims, how original. It would be much more shocking if they showed a naked man wielding a vaccuum cleaner whilst being groped by a lecherous, fully clothed woman.

    btw, I haven’t been able to comment as much now that you use this disqus thingy – my work computer won’t open any sites which use it. Just so you know I’m not ignoring you!

    • Ha! I’m going to start a campaign using a half-naked man and a vacuum cleaner…
      As you say, it’s not even original or ironic – it’s just distasteful.

      Re Disqus – I’m quite annoyed at the problems it’s causing. I love being able to
      reply to people, but I hate the thought it’s off-putting to readers. Could its
      days be numbered…?!

  5. I do remember a D&G ad that suggested a sort of rape orgy that was just terrible! And yes, I do think they have a strong responsibility for the portrail of women, but then again, so do most magazines, and yet neither take that responsibility. But let’s hope that if we take due action things will change!


  6. Fantastic post raising a very important issue. Those first three ads are really quite out of order! I don’t know which to get more depressed about the Calvin Klein ad itself or the fact that banning it can lend the label kudos!

    Your art project sounds very interesting! And it’s also interesting to see how shock tactics used in the imagery have escalated since you produced these works. The first three examples are as you say, very disturbing photo images and as another commenter said, seeing these types of ads even if you don’t pay deliberate attention still has a drip drip drip effect, infiltrating your subconscious until they seem normal – a process which I think is made all the more speedy by the endorsement of a label.

    • The endorsement is the key, and I think labels need to take more
      responsibility. Yes, be creative…yes, push the envelope…but don’t use
      frankly offensive images to sell your clothes and make it all more ‘hip’. It is
      depressing, as you say!

  7. Wow, I have NEVER seen those corpse photos before, though the gang rape one I am familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about freedom of expression and artistic freedom. However, like you said, it’s about the clothes. Show me the clothes. If you want to get a little glam with the photos or insert some artistic creativity that’s fine. But why make it questionable? Why make it super controversial? If I want to see contrversial art, I’ll go to an art gallery. I don’t think I need to see it in a fashion mag.

    Great article by the way! Thanks for hipping me to it over at my blog! 🙂

    • Exactly. I love the potential for interpretation, but when it portrays women in
      this light without even showing the clothes, then it really makes you question
      what they’re trying to achieve…

  8. It’s seems counterproductive to use naked models to advertise clothes, and it’s sad that so many fashion ads portray women in a poor light. I love the project you did with the quotes and magazine ads. Very thought provoking.

    • Thank you – I was dipping my toe into the feminist art pool! Unfortunately it
      came to nothing.

      You’re absolutely right about the use of naked models – it’s misleading,
      irresponsible, and often boring…

  9. I’ve been pondering upon this post for days. I’m still not further forward because I feel I am so anti most contextualisation of women/fashion and identity that it depresses me.

    the trouble is the fashion view of sex and sexualisation of women is so far removed from our daily lives that it is often laughable until you realise that it cuts out huge sections of society based on colour, age and weight.

    Your images are interesting because the vulnerability is also sexual allure/coyness – a more accepted view of women and sexuality rather than predatory.

    See – I think so many things that I’ve opened more question than answers!!

  10. I think consumers have to be smart and analytical about what they’re seeing. Some people will say these ads are just ads and why complain? However, I think when places in a social context, they are offensive, hurtful and demeans. Sadly, that’s most advertising. That’s not an excuse, though.

    Great post.

    Also, what exactly is Superette advertising? I wouldn’t even be able to tell you from those ads. Do they remind you at all of Lady Gaga’s video for Paparazzi? That’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw them.

    • Sorry, Courtney – for some reason I didn’t get the notification for this comment!

      Superette’s ads are shocking, yes, and distasteful to some…but it really isn’t that clear what they are advertising. I could respect their reasoning more if it were. I wouldn’t mind if they were using it as a means to promote discussion of controversial issues – but I can’t help seeing it purely as a means of giving them some kind of twisted kudos.

  11. What an interesting and well thought-out post. I saw both the Superette and CK adverts when B (Beautifully Invisible, of course, which is how I came across your post here!) included them in one of her articles on the same subject, and they both shocked me no end. The second Superette ad with the fence never fails to remind me of the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound – it really has no similarity except for the fact that the protagonist’s brother was accidentally killed in a similar way. But just the same, the bottle of wine on the floor as well as the roller skates on the girl in the stair photo makes one lean toward the indication that these are accidental deaths, as if maybe the folks behind the campaign were trying to skirt around the murder implications by tossing in those little details? At any rate, it doesn’t make me want to go out and buy their clothes (I *think* they’re marketing clothes?) and my life wouldn’t be drastically without color if I had never seen them to begin with. The CK adverts, I’m just not a fan. It happens so often with fashion advertisements that the actual *fashion* is obscured by half-naked bodies getting in the way! What the heck? I want to see the clothes! I don’t get outright offended by overt sexual/violent depictions in fashion ads, rather I become automatically disinterested. By using controversy to sell you’re clothes you’re using the most unoriginal tool in the market. What can I possibly like about that, you know?

    But with all that being said, I do think your project was rather profound. It gives voice to the honest feelings of women in a raw and unshielded way. The women in the other adverts are mute in comparison, if that makes any sense? I’ll stop yammering now, but congratulations on a truly remarkable post!

    • Wow, thank you for such a thoughtful response. Love the point you make about those images ‘giving voice’ to mute women – will you write my next post, please?!?!

      As for the other adverts…I think the fact that the clothes barely feature is one of the most annoying parts of the whole thing – and when you consider that Superette’s website is quite cute and twee it makes even less sense. As you say: it discourages any interest.

  12. Oh Mrs. B! You recently asked “What Kind of Posts Do you Associate with Mrs. Bossa?” Well, I missed this one last month, but this this IS YOU! It’s thought provoking and poignant. So glad that someone shared it on Beautifully Invisible’s Link Love post!

  13. Great post—thought-provoking and disturbing. The college project you embarked on is fascinating. I created a similar book (minus the chilling embroidered messages) when I was a senior. The inappropriate images were prevalent when I sought them out too. Thanks for raising our consciousness and getting readers thinking about what we absorb on a daily basis and how it affects us.

  14. What bothers me about trying for “shock value,” no matter what the subject, is that it doesn’t take into account the experiences of the people who will see it (oh, how Constructivist of me). The Superette ads reminded me of something a friend who had experienced a murder in her family told me. She said that no one ever considers that someone watching the crime drama, or attending the murder mystery party, or listening to the song with lyrics about killing, will have experienced that themselves. No one considers how those images, words and actions are emotional triggers of pain, anger, and sadness. Shock value for entertainment is a dangerous path to tread.

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