REAL LIVES Junkies are cool, suicide is painless, and teenage self-destruction is 'in'. Why have yesterday's juvenile pariahs become the new fashion icons?
picture a sleazeville motel in which a lanky youth reclines upon purple shag pile. He is wearing nothing but a denim shirt, black nail varnish, a bulging pair of Y-Fronts and a come hither smile. Should your mental image resemble a Sixties gay porn flick, please note that according to Calvin Klein who conceived this scene for his latest jeans campaign, pornography has absolutely zilch to do with it. Got that?

America's moral majority were neither convinced nor amused. A torrent of accusations, ranging from "kiddie porn" to "cheap titillation" resulted in Calvin Klein's withdrawal of the offending magazine adverts, television spots and billboards. Sullenly, the company issued a full page apology in the New York Times. Glamour, it asserted, is "an inner quality that can be found in regular people in the most ordinary setting" and "is not something exclusive to models and movie stars". Reading between the lines, the statement sheds light on advertising's current infatuation with "realism".

"Realism" refers to imagery that probes the seamy aspects of urban existence and is marked by an obsession with teenage self-destruction: drug abuse, child prostitution, crime, suicide and delinquency. From Hollywood to designer catwalks, MTV to Vogue, we are now being barraged with portrayals of adolescent outlaw culture. Yesterday's juvenile pariahs have become today's icons of rebellion. More sinister is the trend evidenced by the Calvin Klein campaign, whereby corporations are deliberately exploiting a generation's fascination with the forbidden to lend their companies a veneer of youth credibility.

A recent TV commercial for Pepe jeans showed a suicidal youth stealing his parents' Mercedes and driving it into the Thames. The ad was banned following complaints to the Independent Television Commission. Meanwhile, the current ad campaign for London listings magazine Time Out features a young boy who clearly looks E'd out of his skull. The caption simply reads: "TAKE SOME - Time Out". "We're trying to be honest, that's what people appreciate,"offers a spokesman for Fuel, the design group that conceived the campaign. "We wanted something hard-hitting that would capture the 18-24 club market, it's an in-joke with that age group."

Drugs, suicide and criminality are indeed an irrefutable part of everyday life, but the glamorisation of self-destruction for use as a marketing tool? If Kurt Cobain's nihilism captured the imagination of a generation, his famous "no hope, no future" anthem has now become a cynical sales ploy pushed by ad men who realise that nothing "Sells like Teen Spirit".

Where did it all begin? In its most recent cultural incarnation, "realism" originates from a movement in British fashion photography pioneered during the early Nineties by Face and i-D photographers Nigel Shafran, Corinne Day and David Sims. The visual equivalent of Seattle grunge, it kicked against the Eighties maxim "wealth is glamour" by extolling the virtues of life's unpurchasable commodities, in particular youth and individuality. In their quest for less contrived iconography, they turned to social documentary - drawing inspiration from figures such as Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Bruce Davidson, and Mary Ellen Mark - cast "real" kids as models and celebrated the style conscious if shabby lifestyles of Britain's recession- hit adolescents. The rest is history. The Waif Look became Britain's most marketable subcultural export since punk, and Kate Moss its undisputed Boadicea.

Calvin Klein has proclaimed an affinity with this sort of realism. But it was a lingerie story shot by Corinne Day for British Vogue (June '93) that provides the most obvious antecedent to its controversial ads. In a wry send-up of Vogue's ab fab image, Day photographed Kate Moss padding around a bedsit clad in lewd knickers. It caused a storm. "Paedophilic and almost like a junkie," intoned the psychotherapist Susie Orbach. Ms Day's response is: "Kate's my friend and that story was shot in her flat to show how teenagers really live, to show the truth." She is equally vociferous in her attack on Steven Meisel's CK campaign. "Nothing but a pornographic pastiche of my work. Meisel's lack of engagement with his subjects makes them crude."

If we ignore for a moment the fashion world's cat fights, both photographers' images indicate a move into the mainstream of underground youth culture. It is a trend in the fashion industry unwittingly criticised by Steven Meisel himself when he stated last year: "There is a glamorisation of squalor and drugs more so now than ever. I guess it's that so many things have already been done and that they have to up the ante. So white trash has been glamorised, the whole negative 'fuck you' attitude has been glamorised. They're turned into a fashion trend."

i-D fashion editor Edward Enninful is keen to draw a distinction between realist fashion photography and advertising. "Photographers like Day or Sims look as if they could appear in their stories and that gives their work a certain innocence. It's about trying to capture adolescent dreams. It's pure. When marketing people grab hold of these ideas, that purity disappears. They don't realise that the kids will say, 'we've seen this before and we've seen it better'. There are enough fashion people glorifying an unattainable vision of perfection, as a fashion editor I think it's my role to show another side of things, to show reality."

A survey of Time Out readerslast year revealed that only 13 per cent of 1,000 respondents saw drug users as "criminal", only 4 per cent thought they were "evil". No less than 87 per cent had experimented with drugs of some description and 17 per cent considered narcotics abuse "hip". According to the governmental report Drug Misuse in Britain (1994), "The most remarkable departure from earlier decades is the integration of LSD and Ecstasy into mass youth culture". The finding is echoed in a report released in June by the National Criminal Intelligence Service which notes that, 10 years after the birth of illicit acid house parties, raves have exploded into a pounds 2bn a year business and that "companies are now tapping into the huge potential for advertising". The report also notes that while ravers once regarded certain narcotics as "uncool", "there is evidence that they may be turning from dance drugs to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin".

It is much too harsh to accuse advertisers of being evil Pied Pipers, leading innocents astray with sex and drugs. Advertisers can argue that they are simply responding to a zeitgeist, created by a variety of cultural trends and by many different people, not one of whom will admit to glamorising teenage self-destruction. But should those in the business of packaging trends not shoulder a fraction of the responsibility? After all, influence is their raison d'etre. Creative team Viv Walsh and Jo Tanner at Saatchi & Saatchi pass the buck in a big way when they say: "The Eighties was about shoulder pads, the Nineties is about outlaw realism. To appeal to a youth market there is no point in taking a moral stance, you have to use their language and that's anti-Establishment. Besides, we don't see selling products as manipulation."

Set against a backdrop of teenagers' increased "media savvyness", as Calvin Klein puts it, how are anti-drug campaigns to drive their message home? According to Kerry Sheils, spokeswoman for the Department of Health: "There's been a gradual shift in policy towards information-based campaigns rather than the authoritarian 'drugs kill' stance of old. We now endorse the non-patronising approach that one shouldn't take drugs but, if one does, it helps to know the facts." The reasons for this wind change are more complex than a softening in the Government's drugs policy. To understand, cast your mind back to the Government's infamous "heroin screws you up" campaign, which appeared during the mid-Eighties. The posters portrayed a scabrous and gaunt youth huddled against a wall. The posters were withdrawn after its smack-ravaged bogeyman became a cult pin-up among teenage girls. It seems that, however you try to appeal to, communicate with, or sell to teenagers, you cannot win. Both advertisers and anti-drugs campaigners are trying to woo their audiences by toeing a rebel friendly line. No one wants to be seen as the face of authority.

Somewhere between the hysteria of pulpit-pounding zealots and the shoulder- shrugging of the culture industry, it must be possible to ask: where do we set the limit? "Yes, kids take drugs," says Enninful, "yes, they go out until the morning, yes, they have sex. But there's a difference between showing a kid on a bed looking as though they might be on drugs and showing someone with ten needles stuck in their arm. There's a fine line you don't cross. It's a question of responsibility."


Barbara Jordan, mentioned in our "Brief Encounters" feature last week, has asked us to make it clear that she had been divorced for three years before she began a relationship with her solicitor. We apologise for any contrary impression.