The latest gimmick for selling jeans -- commercials using little girls in suggestive poses -- is worrying the public. "So many people have written in [to complain]," according to a spokesman at the Better Business Bureau, "that it makes our job much easier." The bureau's National Advertising Division is conducting an inquiry into advertisements by some manufacturers and, according to an informed source, negotiating with one company, Jordache, to alter the way they use children in their ads.
Even the advertisers' rationale for using a Lolita image is being challenged. Florence Rush, a New York social worker and author of a book on child abuse ("The Best Kept Secret"), feels that the image is entirely a manufactured one. The "demon nymphet," she says, the innocent-looking "girl-child with prematurely developed seductive powers, is a myth invented and perpetuated by people with highly commercial interests in promoting the fantasy of child sexuality."
Whether or not little girls like Lolita -- willing nymphets who consciously seduce older men -- exist is a matter of some controversy among child-behavior specialists.But few can dispute the fact that there is a rising tide of plays, movies, television commercials, and magazine ads dedicated to the proposition that little girls can be made to look precociously sexy . . . often with highly profitable results.
* Calvin Klein, who reportedly earned $4 million last year, recently shocked the public and sold millions of jeans with a series of provocative ads using the 15-year-old child star Brooke Shields.
* Other advertisers had been using seductively posed young girls to sell everything from soap to underwear long before Mr. Klein came along. And the trend continues, with such advertisers as Baby Soft cosmetics, Caress soap, Blackglama furs, Photomat, and dozens of others using the technique.
* Films like "Pretty Baby" and "Blue Lagoon," with Brooke Shields, have made box office successes out of the child-sexuality theme. ("Blue Lagoon" alone has grossed over $28 million so far.)
* Child and teen-age model agencies report their business has risen dramatically, as the demand for children to model adult clothing, frequently in a sexuality titillating manner, has erupted.
* The play "Lolita" itself involves 14-year-old Alaina Wojcik (in a supporting role) standing on a Broadway stage while a man describes his sexual experiences with her.
The wages of sexual precociousness have never been higher: Child models are pulling down from $750 to $1,500 a day. Even for her small role in "Lolita," Alaina Wojcik will earn at least $400 to $500 a week.
But such high salaries don't impress some observers, who complain that, to the business operators who exploit them, these children are nothing more than little properties that pay big dividends.
Many people -- casting and model agencies, promoters and agents, producers and investors -- collect on these dividends. Miss Wojcik's mother says her daughter's agent and manager will get 25 percent of her salary between them.
Jerry Sherlock, the show's producer, stands to make a great deal more. Interviewed in his lavish Central Park West apartment, he denies that his production is capitalizing on the growing phenomenon of commercial child sexuality.
"This is art," Mr. Sherlock argues. "This is culture. This is a great literary work."
There are those who would readily debate the point. Some observers feel that , in his adaptation, Edward Albee has squeezed all the poetry and literary value out of Nabokov's novel. "The purpose of that play," Florence Rush maintains, "is to present us with this very seductive, manipulating little girl, using sex to entrap a man who can't help himself."
She worries that the image is becoming increasingly prevalent -- and therefore accepted -- in our society, as advertisers, magazine art directors, filmmakers, artists, and authors seize on its inherent power to evoke a response from mass audiences.
Recently, she advanced this theory before an assembly of writers, social workers, and others in the dingy, utilitarian headquarters of Women Against Pornography, a concerned citizen organization hard by New York's seamy 42nd Street.
Sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs, the audience watched as Ms. Rush guided them through a presentation of the trends she and many other feminists see in modern images of female children.
Along an entire wall of the long, one-room office, she had assembled perhaps 40 or 50 pictures, advertisements, and cartoons into what she considered a display of increasing child exploitation in the communications media -- from the most subtle advertisements to the most blatant pornography.
Gathered together, the diffuse images of child sexuality seem to lose their subliminal nature and become a frontal assault on the senses.
Then, there are dozens of magazine articles about child models, proclaiming their fame and announcing their fabulous earnings.
She contends that much of what she calls child pornography gains legitimacy by posing as art. That's what she says is going on in Jerry Sherlock's production of "Lolita."
She's not the only one who thinks so.
During the casting of the play, when over 1,000 10- to 13- year-old girls were coming to open auditions, Women Against Pornography planned a joint press conference with women members of the local actors' union, at which they intended to warn of legal action if a child were cast as Lolita.
The press conference was called off, however, when Mr. Sherlock announced that a 24-year-old had been given the role.
Ms. Rush still regrets the decision to cancel the press conference. She thinks more than the protection of that one child is at stake.
"When they decide not to use a child in the role," she charged during an interview in her west Greenwich Village apartment, "they are becoming technical, rather than in any way altering the erroneous image of the child. They don't care about what it does to children. What they care about is a technicality. They will conform to the letter of the law, or what they feel the public out there will take, rather than any real interest in child welfare."
The "letter of the law" she refers to is a federal statute, passed in reaction to an alarming rise in child pornography, which attaches stiff criminal penalties to the use of children to portray sexual activity.
Considering that this law was waiting in the wings all along, some observers suggest that Mr. Sherlock never intended to use a child actress as Lolita, that the highly publicized search for a little girl was merely an attempt to gain media attention.
(If these skeptics are right, the strategy worked: Auditions in Los Angeles and New York attracted widespread newspaper and television coverage, including local talk-show appearances by the girls who auditioned.)
Mr. Sherlock maintains that the search for a young Lolita was legitimate and that, according to his attorneys, the play, as a work of art, was exempt from this statute.
"Laws are meant to be interpreted," he said quietly, perched in front of a massive picture-window view of a wintry Central Park, his leg slung casually over the arm of an elegant chair. "That law was written for pornography."
If his play does not qualify as child pornography, what, in fact, does?
The issue is a thorny one for those who must enforce the law and those who would like to see it more stiffly enforced.
"You get into a problem of censorship," Hortense Landau, head of New York's Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, observes. The lines between pornography and permissible use of children are frequently blurred by First Amendment considerations, she says.
Miss Landau's office responds to complaints of child abuse in this city, although she states that, in cases of professional children, her office is frequently overruled by the mayor.
"I don't have to tell you that we live in a very permissive society," she says. "The whole atmosphere of our society has changed."
She doesn't know how her office or the mayor would have ruled had Alaina Wojcik been selected to play the title role in "Lolita," but she is sure that there is no intention so far to question Miss Wojcik's appearance in the Annabel role -- at least unless a formal complaint is received.
So far, no one has complained about Alaina Wojcik; and no one has complained formally to Miss Landau's office about the use of children in suggestive advertising. But there has been a firestorm of controversy and consumer protest over the jeans advertisements.
"Jordache [jeans] advertising appeals to some very troubling trends in our society," said Kathleen Barry, a sociologist and university professor, who wrote "Female Sexual Slavery," in a telephone interview.
She maintains that Jordache advertising consciously panders to "an increased demand among men for younger and younger girls," as evidenced in increased teen-age prostitution, and that it "appeals to and validates incest in the home."
Her opinion provokes gales of laughter in the bustling, crowded office of Jordache's president, Russell Hartman.
"Do you really believe that?" the slender, impeccably garbed executive asks, once the general mirth has died down.
As he speaks, the surrounding offices churn with the frenzied traffic of department store buyers, fashion designers, and other operatives in the chic, enormously profitable jean business, which has taken a decided upswing since Jordache introduced what Mr. Hartman calls "something new and different" to jeans advertising.
This "new and different" ingredient seems to be a provocativeness in ads that depict couples discoing and cavorting in suggestive proximity while the camera dwells on the contours of their jeans. (According to a company spokesman, the camera focuses on children's derrieres "only when we're talking about the fit of the jeans.")
"We're not blatantly selling sex in our advertising," Mr. Hartman argues, responding occassionally to signals from his public relations expert to avoid suggestive phrases. "Our advertising is not meant to be sexy."
Asked what the poster-size ad behind him on his office wall -- a large picture of an adult woman, bare to the waist, smiling seductively at the camera -- is intended to portray, he looks over his shoulder and shrugs, "That? That's just another pretty face."