Real People: Whip me, beat me, buy me

Provocative images of bondage, rubber and S&M are the new rage in fashion advertising. What's going on? asks James Sherwood

James Sherwood
Sunday 11 October 1998 00:02 BST

TWO MALE TORSOS, naked but for leather straps and sock suspenders, grapple with a baton. Their heads are absent, replaced by the blades of a scissor and a sickle. In the shadows, behind these homoerotic bodies, a boy wearing khaki pants and a white T-shirt watches, bemused. The logo and strapline, "Dockers: Life's Too Short (for pretension)" hides in the bottom corner of this magazine advert.

What, you might ask, do erotic images of S&M wrestlers have to do with flogging canvas pants? The Dockers campaign, released this month in The Face and i-D, is part of a new wave in advertising which is using the language of illicit sex and urban after-hours culture to sell.

In the August issue of gay glossy Attitude, Absolut vodka inserted an A4-sized black rubber mat, embossed with the legend "Absolut Fetish". Base shoes launched their autumn/winter collection with "The Base Guide to London", a no-bullshit, streetwise guidebook for urban youth, which is broken into subheadings such as drugs, sex, fetishism, trannies and counterfeit goods. Guests at the Base launch party in August are still recovering.

"It is a very fine line between being out there and being pretentious," says the BBH Creative Director Bruce Crouch, the man behind the Dockers campaign. "What we are putting across is an attitude as much as a product. So you see the torsos and you are challenged - 'is this out there or does it suck?' In a sense, that image suckers you in. You see the guy in the Dockers. Then you read the caption, 'Life's Too Short'. The ads are tongue- in-cheek. They puncture pretension."

Regardless of the branding blurb, the bare fact remains that the torso image, shot by Jean-Pierre Khazem, engages you - and the khaki pants are secondary. It's an ad that makes you work but gives you the gratification of finally identifying with the, "Sod it, life's too short" generation.

Benetton's opus of advertising campaigns, from AIDS patients to the Downs Syndrome child models, are calculated to provoke. The fact that they have naff all to do with woolly jumpers is academic. This is the triumph of commercialism hiding behind a cause. The motives remain questionable.

The Dockers ads and the Base campaign are, in a way, more innocent. A degree of knowledge is assumed. "It's an extraordinary journey from a black boot to lap-dancing," says Robert Bean, creative director of Base's ad agency, Banc. "We started to work on the psychological effect of putting on your formal shoes for a night out. Where are they going to take a young London guy? He's ready for anything and everything is possible. The Base guide came out of where the Base guy would go and what he might encounter, or what he might do in his fantasies."

The ad agencies have learned not to pull their punches when speaking to ostensibly unshockable youth. Linda Evangelista's collaboration with the ailing cosmetics house Yardley was memorable for the lame billboard ads attempting to suggest bondage with handcuffed Linda, and Linda behind bars. Now Linda can do subversive, no question. But Yardley's Evangelista smiled as if she were bound by a daisy chain. You can't do half-arsed subversion and expect to please anyone. Gucci got it right with their limited edition silver handcuffs, embossed with the radical chic Gucci logo. Add the Gucci dog collar and you have all the accoutrements for designer label S&M. Try to use a handcuffed supermodel to sell lippy and it falls as flat as a leaking silicone boob job.

The Dockers ads are speaking in a language we all like to think we are sophisticated enough to read. They emulate street fashion in-jokes, having a self-conscious pop at the fashion industry trying too hard.

Another of Jean-Pierre Khazem's images depicts a cool Dockers girl looking at three torsos with shark's heads wearing grotesque ball gowns:

"The shark image was an attack on the OTT couture styling," explains Nick Coe at the Dockers Amsterdam office. "Jean-Pierre Khazem was really cool because he is a great photographer at the extreme cutting edge of fashion, but he also has the humour to send that genre up and still shoot the Dockers beautifully."

Nobody is suggesting these ads are directly appealing to S&M guys who beat seven bells out of each other in a Vauxhall lock-up garage under the arches.

"Parts of the Base Guide are fantasy; tongue-in-cheek," says Base London's Ian Webster. "I think all heterosexual men have had a fantasy about picking up a prostitute even though most wouldn't dare. But sex, drugs and counterfeit goods are a reality for young people in today's Britain."

The Base guide is brutally frank in the way it talks to its market. In the drugs section, a particularly nasty portrait of a toothless dealer is over-written with the slogan, "You have to put it in your mouth knowing it's been up his arse".

Any mention of hard drug use and low down, dirty sex in advertising will inevitably have Daily Mail columnists frothing at the mouth about corrupted youth. "You have to be honest with your punters," says Bean. "I think you'll find our section on drugs is responsible but realistic. The first sentence reads, 'A person who takes drugs has several problems. The big one is you can die'. You cannot fool anybody any of the time these days. The young generation are more streetwise than ever before. They will catch you out if you try to patronise or shock them."

It doesn't help companies (or punters) when the Advertising Standards Authority misreads the message and penalises a company like Faberge for apparently promoting drug use. For the launch of Faberge's scent, Fusion, this year, the company took out a four-page at the back of i-D magazine and, as an insert, folded what everyone understood to be a speed wrap made from another i-D onto the page. Inside the wrap was - quel surprise! - a perfume strip of Fusion and the legend: 'The only thing worth sniffing in a club'.

The message was perfectly clear. It used a language anyone under 40 would understand and, crucially, it didn't patronise i-D's readers. The advert was still condemned by the ASA for promoting speed... which is rather like censoring Trainspotting for glamorising heroin rather than initiating a Lou Reed revival. Which - of course - is what it did.

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