WASHINGTON — A coalition of parent-led antidrug groups is calling for a boycott of designer Calvin Klein's products to protest a new ad campaign that they say glamorizes heroin addiction.
The magazine and television advertisements, which began appearing in August, feature a series of gritty images of gaunt, glassy-eyed models. The ads mark a new and unusual approach to selling a designer fragrance.
Executives at Calvin Klein say the ads portray real people and have nothing to do with the support or promotion of narcotics abuse.
Critics say the ad campaign is the manifestation of a recent trend in fashion and entertainment circles called "heroin chic." It is a development, they say, that sends the wrong message to children and teenagers about one of the world's most addictive and dangerous drugs.
"It is quite clear to me that they are glamorizing addiction and drug use, and they are doing it at a time when kids' drug abuse has doubled in the past four years," says organizer Sue Rusche, who called for the boycott this week.
"It is not glamorous, it is not cool, it is outrageous, and Calvin Klein should be ashamed of himself, as should anyone else in the fashion industry who think they can sell products by glamorizing heroin addiction," says Mrs. Rusche, executive director of National Families in Action, an Atlanta-based antidrug group.
Refuting a drug connection
Robert Triefus, a senior vice president at Calvin Klein, says there is no connection between heroin use and the ad campaign. "It is absurd to suggest that we are trying to encourage people [to use drugs] or [to] promote drug use," he says. "Calvin Klein Inc. absolutely refutes the suggestion that there is a link between trends in drug abuse and any of its advertising campaigns."
He says the advertisements are an innovative and effective way to sell perfume. "They are based on real people and the emotions described by those people based on their lives," he says. "The campaign is based on being yourself."
Calvin Klein has a reputation as a maverick in the fashion world who is willing to take his ad campaigns to the edge. In the 1970s, teen model Brooke Shields was hired to proclaim in a jeans ad: "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins."
Last year the king of designer jeans reaped a whirlwind of criticism for dressing models like teenagers and posing them suggestively in television, magazine, and billboard ads. Opponents called it child pornography. A Justice Department investigation ended without charges after federal agents determined that no minors were used in the ads. But Calvin Klein eventually bowed to public pressure and canceled that campaign.
Mr. Triefus says the company has felt no impact from the threatened boycott.
Harry Montoya of the National Hispano/Latino Community Prevention Network in Espanola, N.M., says the models in the ads closely resemble heroin addicts. "I have worked with people who have been addicted to heroin, and it is uncanny in terms of the similarities," he says. "These [models] physically resemble heroin addicts. The face. The thin features."
"Heroin is on the rise again," says Ford Kuramoto of the Los Angeles-based group National Asia Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse. "I think it is pretty sad when a chic designer line has to use a heroin mystique to sell its products."
Officials at Calvin Klein's in-house advertising agency declined to comment on the campaign. They directed all calls to Triefus.
A call to competitors
"We call upon the entire fashion industry to reject 'heroin chic'," says Paula Kemp, associate director of National Families in Action. "We ask Calvin Klein's competitors to join us in refusing to glamorize addiction in any of their ads."
"There is nothing good about glamorizing heroin," says Leigh Leventhal of the New York-based antidrug group Americans for a Drug-Free America.
The group is waging a high-profile advertising campaign warning of the dangers of drug abuse. In one of its current ads, the group portrays a real-life heroin addict, an art director, to make its point.
The ad features a portrait of the woman and quotes her as saying, "I saw a dog and thought: 'If I was a dog I wouldn't have a heroin addiction. I wish I was a dog.' "