Calvin Klein has a long history of walking right up to the line separating provocative from perverse, and this time the company has crossed it. The clothing brand’s new ad features 23-year-old Danish model Klara Kristin looking down as a camera peeks up her dress, showing a sliver of her Calvins.
“Calvin Klein keeps pushing out garbage and using sexual exploitation to make a profit,” said Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “Everyone is concerned with curbing sexual harassment in our culture right now, and they took advantage of that concern to promote their brand.”
On top of that, because the model’s bangs are cut short and choppy and her dress is a baby-doll style, some critics are accusing Calvin Klein of evoking child pornography.
In response, NCOSE is encouraging people to boycott the brand and cut up any Calvin Klein products they already own and mail them to company headquarters at 205 W. 39th St., New York, NY 10018. The group, which works to combat pornography, sex trafficking and sexual violence, urges people to express their outrage on social media with the hashtag #ICutCalvin.
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“We can’t let them normalize this kind of behavior,” Hawkins told me. “Upskirting is part of a public health crisis of sexual violence sweeping our country.”
Indeed, upskirting is increasingly gaining the attention of public safety officials. Last month the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office launched a campaign to raise awareness of upskirting, which is a crime in New York. Anyone caught committing the offense, officials warn, can be charged with “unlawful surveillance,” a class E felony, with a penalty of up to four years in prison and possible sex offender registration.
In 2014, the Chicago City Council voted to impose a $500 fine on anyone caught upskirting, which is also illegal in Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts and a growing number of other states (including Washington state).
It’s hard to imagine why any company figured the crime would make a catchy ad campaign, other than in keeping with the shopworn (and increasingly questionable) axiom, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
But in the age of social media and immediate blowback, when it’s fast and simple to mobilize opposition into action, publicity can actually be quite bad. (Think “United breaks guitars.”)
“We’re definitely talking about Calvin Klein,” Hawkins told me. “But the difference is we’re talking about them consistently glamorizing sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
Does that really translate into jeans sales? I suppose someone at Calvin Klein, whose social currency has fallen in recent years, figured it might.
It was a risky and irresponsible gamble, and it’s too early to determine whether it will pay off for the company. Regardless, it coarsens the culture it’s foisted upon by turning a predatory crime into a play for cachet (and cash).
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.