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Calvin Klein controversial ads
This CK 1995 ad angered parent groups, child welfare authorities and the American Family Association who all felt that it looked like child pornographyPhotography Steven Meisel

How to make the world’s most provocative ads

From causing outrage with an underage Brooke Shields to inventing heroin chic, this is the Calvin Klein crash course in controversy

Last week, Calvin Klein dropped their latest denim ads, a steamy series featuring couples (and even the odd ménage à trois) and some NSFW text messages. Quickly dubbed the fashion campaign for the Tinder generation, it was their latest move in a lifetime of provocation – the brand has been famed for their often sexually-charged imagery since the 1980s. In fact, there’s a lot to be learned from them – we take their tips on how to present the world’s most provocative ads.


When it comes to their campaigns, Calvin Klein have never been too far from controversy. It began back in 1980 with a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, boldly declaring that “nothing” came between her and her favourite pair of jeans, a double entendre which promptly got the spot banned from some TV stations. 1995 saw another provocative campaign hit the headlines, this time lensed by Steven Meisel. Although all models depicted were of age (also decorated with other signifiers of adulthood such as tattoos) complaints were made by organisations like the American Family Association that the images felt like child porn thanks to its basement setting.


As their latest campaign shows, Calvin Klein are keeping their vision of sexuality up to the minute, channeling the digital sex lives of today’s youth. But creating a good ad isn’t just about reflecting the world we live in, it also has to influence it. Over the years, they’ve kept their finger on the pulse when it comes to casting for their campaigns – like their 90s shots staring a then-teenage Kate Moss cosying up to Mark Wahlberg. Capturing the icon on the cusp of celebrity, it kickstarted the heroin chic look that would define fashion in the decade (and cause quite a stir).


If you weren’t living under a WiFi-less rock, you will have noticed your Instagram feed filling up with people taking selfies in their Calvin Klein underwear last year. The brand’s #mycalvins campaign was an exercise in viral marketing that played on the two things we’re all obsessed with: sex and social media. Everyone from it models Kendall Jenner, Jourdan Dunn and Gigi Hadid to the randoms you went to school with got involved, tagging pictures in their pants (before they sold out everywhere). The lesson to learn from this? Sometimes it’s better just to sit back and let people create the ads themselves. 


While the Calvin Klein couple who has received the most attention lately is undoubtedly Lara Stone and Justin Bieber (with Stone reportedly receiving death threats for the ad), the company has been more fashion forward than most when it comes to using same sex pairings in its campaigns. This latest series stars gay and lesbian couples, and last year's CK One campaign was no different, with French singer Soko sharing a smooch in the film. 


This one depends on how much you believe brands are secretly channelling the Illuminati-style marketing techniques of subliminal messaging. A 2011 campaign for CK One fragrance was called up for supposedly containing some subtle – with the image spelling out the word fuck (the table legs are the F, the U is her bra, and the CK of Calvin Klein is the rest). Intentional? Unlikely. Controversial? Definitely. After all, isn’t the sign of a good advert one that we’re all talking about?