Simply shocking (they hope)

Advertisers such as Calvin Klein test our moral boundaries, but may also help to preserve them
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The Independent Online
The fashion designer Calvin Klein is one of those smart, paradoxical American characters who, one way or another, get to be taken more seriously than seems strictly necessary. He operates on a cleverly constructed borderline of respectability. On one side of this moral frontier are his clothes - expensive, ordinary, slightly boring and well-made in an entirely traditional sense. On the other side is his corporate image - racy, sexually ambiguous, New York streetwise and dangerous. Like so many contemporary American heroes, he manages to have his cake and eat it. He is regarded simultaneously as classically fine and frighteningly contemporary, at once a sustainer of the culture and its Nemesis.

Now Klein has withdrawn a series of advertisements for his clothes, under pressure from organisations such as the Catholic League and the American Family Association. The ads showed very young teenagers in very provocative poses and were attacked as being close to child pornography. Klein backed down, claiming the ads had been "misunderstood". Of course, by so doing he succeeded in doubling his publicity hit and maintaining his paradoxical appeal - dangerous but, when the chips were down, respectable. Calvin's cake is eaten but remains deliciously intact.

This is an absolutely routine story. We have seen it all before. A product called Jesus Jeans once ran into trouble for the advertisement which showed a denim female bum over the slogan "If you love me follow me". The British Safety Council and British Rail both stepped over some mark or other with the use of condoms in their advertising. Club 18-30 had to withdraw posters admitting - honestly enough - that their holidays were only about sex rather than sightseeing or self-improvement. This week Martini had an advertisement banned by the ITC for too closely associating drink and sex. And, of course, there is the perennial mission to shock of Benetton - dying Aids victims or bloody babies used to sell an unconscionably dull range of knitwear.

Supposedly outrageous advertising of this kind has become a ludicrously familiar part of the contemporary environment. As Klein and the advertisers well know, they cannot lose. Both the images and the protests drive the publicity machine onwards. And if they are seriously challenged on the matter of their morals or, in the case of Benetton, their sanity, then they can always claim they have been, like some romantic artist, "misunderstood"; or, like Janet Street-Porter, that the protesting old fogeys do not grasp the libertarian dynamics of youth culture.

But what we are dealing with here is very much the media mainstream. Terrestrial and most satellite television, advertising hoardings and display ads in newspapers and magazines are tightly controlled - either officially or by self-imposed restraint. They are controlled on the basis of an assumed consensus about what is or is not acceptable. And they are controlled because they are available to all. The fact that televisions can be turned off or posters ignored is not felt to be enough. The sheer intimacy and persistence of their presence makes us feel that they are too much part of the common public realm to be left unguarded.

Beyond the mainstream, however, lies another land. Walk to 42nd Street, a few yards from the site of the giant poster of a muscled hunk in bulging Calvin Klein underpants that recently hung, monumentally, over New York's Times Square, and you can buy utterly uncensored videos and magazines covering any sexual variation you care to name. Make a telephone call and your Sky dish can bring you four hours of solid porn for "only 20p a night". Even scan your newspaper stand and the naughty fun of the Sun and the Star sits almost prudishly beside the earnestly jutting tits and thrusting bums of the Daily Sport. Beyond the controlled titillation of the mainstream lies the hard raunch of the liberated subculture.

The membrane that divides the mainstream and the subculture is fascinating because it is so mobile and so permeable. Pop videos now routinely employ the imagery of sado-masochistic pornography and the sex industry habitually plucks titillation from the mainstream - soon after "Asian babes" made the mainstream headlines as the latest fashion accessories, magazines and prostitutes' ads appeared offering Indian and Pakistani girls.

Given such permeability, it is tempting to take the anarchic view that these are all just aspects of one culture - the culture of free fun of any kind, any time, anywhere, and in spite of those who would protest. Inevitably, it seems, the close proximity of the raunch to the mainstream will result in the membrane dissolving, with only the off-switch or the averted glance being left to protect the sensitive and the disapproving. That, after all, will be freedom. Will Klein and Street-Porter be happy?

Of course they won't. The obvious point to make about this is that those who would assault the barrier of respectability need that barrier even more than those who would defend it. Both Klein in his racy mode and Street- Porter, when she propagates the gospel of yoof to television executives, would become quite meaningless were it not for the fact that some people, maybe many people, are still capable of taking offence. They need the continued existence of standards of respectability and moral anxiety because without them they would have nothing to say.

In fact they need this barrier so much that they actually build it themselves. Few people these days can be particularly offended by the excesses of youth, the frank display of sexuality or by blasphemy. Those who are must live in a perpetual state of shock. So what the publicists have to do to is invent new variations to offend in new ways - for that is what they are, offenders.

Most people, for example, would assume large parts of British television had already been taken over by youth culture - so Street-Porter inventively stands up and says it hasn't. Benetton combines bland sweaters with terrible suffering to create a dissonance sufficiently bizarre to awaken the shock reflexes of even the most jaded palates. And Klein disingenuously assaults the anxiety provoked by the idea of children and sex by making the models a bit younger, splaying the legs a little wider and demanding expressions just that touch more depraved and pre-coital.

From this perspective it becomes clear that the professional libertarians and the fashionably "misunderstood" are firmly on the side of censorship. It is they who most wish to preserve respectability, they who are most afraid of a form of liberation that would strip them of their identities. If they occasionally appear to be acting against their own best interests by teasing the very mainstream to which they so obviously belong, then it is only to provoke the backlash they so urgently require. Benetton, Street-Porter and Klein are some of the great bores of our day but, oddly, we seem to need them to stand between us and 42nd Street.