Towering above Times Square, a huge billboard sits cloaked in white canvas. Behind the cover is a picture of two little children in their underwear, standing on a couch, grinning and clowning around.
It's the centerpiece of the ad campaign Calvin Klein pulled last week after critics complained it bordered on the pornographic and could encourage pedophilia.
On the surface, the controversy appeared to be a clash between outraged religious conservatives and the bold, edgy fashion designer who's known for pushing the bounds of sexuality and taste in advertising. But many social critics say the ad and ensuing controversy illustrate a deeper phenomenon: an increasingly aggressive commercialization.
From explicit sexual imagery to pictures that evoke tender emotions, such as happy kids at home romping around in their underwear, almost anything goes if it can help sell a product.
With the average American now exposed to 3,000 advertising images every day, ad designers perceive a need to shock, stand out, and grab consumers in new ways. Indeed, advertising executives have even co-opted the counter-culture, trying to capitalize on the spirit of the rebel and the nonconformist in their bid to sell products.
"It sounds like Calvin Klein is being scapegoated for the general excesses of our commercial culture," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University. "I don't simply mean the near nudity or sexual innuendo; I mean the intensifying emphasis on shock value and the sheer omnipresence of advertising. What's immoral is not necessarily [advertising's] occasional lapse in taste, but its reduction of all of life to ... pursuit of fulfillment in mere products."
The controversy prompted Mr. Klein to cancel the unveiling of the billboard in Times Square, and he decided not to send the children to a promotional appearance scheduled at Macy's last Thursday.
But he went ahead with an appearance by supermodel Christy Turlington. Many of the people waiting in line to get her autograph had seen the controversial ads the day before in The New York Times and several magazines.
While only one person agreed that the photos of the children verged on pornography, a few thought they were "creepy." But most people saw no problem with the pictures, thinking they were sweet and playful, and likening them to family snapshots.
Still, many of them also believed the pictures could be seen as questionable when viewed in the context of the larger advertising culture. "I can see how a concerned parent might see it as child pornography, considering what's going on the Internet and all," says Lolly Enriques, a student at Fordham Law School here. "But I'm not a pedophile, so I just see it as innocent children."
Selling to kids
What struck social critic Neil Postman was not that Calvin Klein was again possibly pushing the bounds of good taste, but that anyone would be trying to sell designer underwear to four- and five-year-olds.
"The general tendency to ignore the idea of childhood, and treat children as miniature adults, tends to destroy some of the ideas we used to associate with childhood - innocence and malleability and curiosity," says Professor Postman, author of the 1982 book "The Disappearance of Childhood."
Calvin Klein contends this ad campaign was designed to celebrate just such attributes of childhood. Neither he nor his company returned repeated phone calls, but he did issue a statement that said the advertisements were designed simply to "show children smiling, laughing, and just being themselves."
But that innocent explanation didn't sit well with several advertising experts, given Klein's history of producing advertising that portrays young people as sex objects.
In fact, some suspect Klein consciously went ahead with what he knew would be a controversial campaign so he could pull it - and again reap lots of free media attention. To be sure, he did get lots of that, from New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to Rosie O'Donnell. CNN even dedicated a full segment of "Talk Back Live" to Klein's underwear ads.
"I can't believe this was done without the intent to cause controversy," says Diane Cook-Tench, director of the Ad Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "He's established a major brand based on controversy. He is the anti-establishment, and young people buy his clothes because he is anti-establishment. That's what he's selling - he's very savvy."
Advertising critic Jean Kilbourne goes further. She believes he intentionally set up the controversy so that anyone who criticizes the ads will be characterized as a moralistic prude and he will be championed as a bold innovator.
"I wouldn't want him to get away with that. This is just about selling underwear - it's not about rebellion or being cool. This is a very cold-blooded marketing strategy," says Ms. Kilbourne. "And I refuse to be put in the so-called moralistic, antisex camp by the likes of Calvin Klein."
Others in the ad world were more generous, hoping that Klein and his ad executives wouldn't be that cynical. But they also believe his history helped prompt the controversy.
"Would this campaign have been OK if JC Penney had done it? I think maybe so," says David "Jelly" Helm of the Martin Agency in Richmond. "But if you associate it with someone who has surely capitalized on sexuality and pushing sexual bounds, then it is something that you want to ask questions about."