How ad outrage helps sell fashion

Tom Ford proved getting people riled up with advertising is just part of the job

Spin CoverThis excerpt is taken from Clive Veroni’s Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on Its Head(2014). Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press.

In 2000, giant posters began appearing all over London bearing a single striking image. They featured a woman lying on a velvety cloth of dark indigo, her back arched, her head tilted back, her reddish curls sinking into the fabric, and her plum-coloured lips just slightly parted.

She wore a pair of gold stilettos, a gold bracelet, a gold necklace. And nothing else. Her hand cupped her left breast. The right breast was fully exposed. The image was shot in such a way as to make her pale and luminous skin stand out from the dark and moody background. In the right-hand corner, in gold letters, were the words “Opium. The fragrance from Yves Saint Laurent.”

This ad for Opium received more than 1,000 complaints

This ad for Opium received more than 1,000 complaints

The ad was hard to miss. It made the reputation of the then twenty-three-year-old model Sophie Dahl. It also made headlines.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the body that deals with public complaints about advertising in the U.K., received over 1,000 complaints about it. That’s out of a total of 2,700 complaints about all poster ads that year. It was the single most complained-about ad of the year. And the media quickly dubbed it “The most offensive ad of 2000.”

The man behind it all was Tom Ford. Ten years earlier Ford had gone to Milan to work for the then ailing luxury brand Gucci. By 1994 he had been made the company’s design director. And he took a staid Italian leather goods company, which had sought its initial inspiration from the horsey English aristocracy, and turned it on its head.

Ford single-handedly brought sexy back to the house of Gucci. In the words of his predecessor, Ford changed everything from being “round and brown” to being “square and black.”

When Gucci later acquired Yves Saint Laurent, Ford took over design responsibilities there as well. And he chose to make a splash in the ysl perfume business by deliberately appealing to the tribe of fashionistas for whom fashion was all about making daring choices and bold statements.

There can be no doubt his message was not intended just for consumers; it was also aimed directly at the fashion influencers — the powerful magazine editors and fashion writers who not only dictated the trends but also decreed who the next fashion stars would be. He was aiming the Sophie Dahl billboards directly at them, knowing that the prim English housewife in sensible shoes would likely be outraged.

Two years after the controversial Sophie Dahl ad, he turned up the heat further in a campaign for ysl’s men’s fragrance M7. One ad featured former martial-arts-champion-turned-model Samuel de Cubber.

Shot in black and white and dramatically lit from above to highlight every curve, it shows de Cubber seated on the floor, head turned to one side, leaning back on his hands, legs apart. He is completely naked, in all his swarthy manliness.

In response to this startling image of full-frontal male nudity, Time magazine trumpeted, “Break out the champagne, get out the party lights, strike up the band—the last taboo has finally been broken.” At last, men were being exploited as sexual objects just the way women had always been.

Of course, Time never ran the ad, nor did GQ. Not even Out, a gay maga- zine with frequently explicit sexual content, could bring itself to display Mr. de Cubber in all his natural glory. The ad ran in the French edition of Vogue instead.

The arch and elegant Tom Ford knew exactly what he was doing. Inspired perhaps by Marilyn Monroe’s famous line, “What do I wear to bed? Why, Chanel No. 5 of course,” he is reported to have justified the ad by saying, “Perfume is worn on the skin, so why hide the body?”

Deliberately creating ads that most magazines wouldn’t dare to run, but whose perfectly pitched dog whistle could be heard by just the right audience, seemed to be working as a brand-building strategy for both Gucci and for Ford himself.

By 2002 he was once again provoking the scrutiny of the ASA — this time with a brand ad for Gucci that gave a new twist to the old phrase “Opening the kimono.”

In it, model Louise Pedersen is seen from the midriff down. She is splayed, back against a wall; the kimono she’s wearing falls away to reveal her sleek torso and glistening legs. With one hand she is pulling down the front of her panties. In front of her kneels a young man. He is gazing intently at the spot right above the top of her panties, which now reveals her pubic hair, perfectly shaved in form of the Gucci “G.” The G-spot, so to speak.

This image was shot by famed fashion photographer Mario Testino and made to look as if the viewer has just stumbled upon the scene. The couple appears to be caught in the harsh light of an amateur’s flashbulb, making the intimacy and sexuality of the moment even more arresting.

Predictably, the outcry against this campaign was swift and loud. Mediawatch-UK, an organization whose stated aim is to campaign for family values in the media, led the attack. The director, John Beyer, denounced the ad as deeply offensive and called for an immediate ban by the ASA.

He went on to say, “The companies involved clearly release these kind of pictures to create as much publicity as possible, but it’s a thoroughly unpleasant and irresponsible tactic. We can’t simply ignore them.” Ford might have added, And that’s the whole idea.

It would be easy to dismiss all of this provocation as just so much fashion industry hoopla, were it not for the results. When Ford began his career at Gucci in 1994, the company was still reeling from a series of financial and management disasters.

Two years earlier, its U.S. operations had lost $30 million. That was on top of an accumulated debt of $100 mil- lion. Aldo Gucci, one of the sons of the company founder, Guccio Gucci, had spent time in a Florida jail for tax evasion. And the company had been acquired by an investment group from Bahrain, which forced out Maurizio Gucci, the last remaining family member in the business.

In 1995 Maurizio was shot dead on the streets of Milan. A subsequent trial would reveal that the murder was arranged by his former wife and that she had used her personal psychic to hire the assassins.

Against this operatic background, Tom Ford sailed into the Gucci offices with an armload of silk and velvet swatches, a few gilt accessories, and a vision for a new and more sensual Gucci brand. By the time he left, revenues had skyrocketed from a couple of hundred million to over $3 billion. And the company’s stock value had increased to $10 billion, up from $4 billion only five years earlier.

Any analysis of Tom Ford’s tenure at Gucci would have to conclude that it was his artistic vision that remade the faltering brand. From the very beginning his collections were hailed for bringing a new sense of glamour, not just to the house of Gucci but also to the world of fashion as a whole.

His velvet hipsters and silk shirts worn open to the waist defined a new long, lean, sexy silhouette. They signalled a shift to a more seductive sense of style, what the New York Times admiringly dubbed “a louche sexuality.”

Could he have achieved the same results without resorting to controversial ads? Without raising the ire of those outside the cossetted tribe of fashion insiders? Possibly. But there is no doubt that those ads helped tremendously.

First of all, they signalled that things were changing at Gucci, and changing dramatically. The once hidebound purveyor of luxury leather goods, known for its iconic horsebit, was striking out in a new direction. And everyone had better pay attention.

Secondly, the ads were a logical extension of what Ford was doing on the runway. They were the perfect embodiment of the new, sexy brand image he was creating. From that perspective, the ads made perfect sense.

But, of course, this is fashion. Like the fragrance industry or the beverage alcohol business, it thrives on an intoxicating mix of sex and controversy. Getting people riled up is just part of the job. It’s not like selling packaged goods to middle America. It’s not like selling apple pie or ice cream. Or is it?

For more information about Spin, visit And check out our first excerpt: “Time for marketers to abandon the safety of the high ground“.

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