Photo Shoot-Out: Taking Aim at Tasteless Ads

NEW YORK — Rochelle Gurstein doesn't know why she still buys magazines with ads she finds offensive.

“I see ads and they irritate me, but it doesn't occur to me to boycott or write a letter,” the Bard College professor and public obscenity historian said.

“There is a level at which we are all bombarded by unwholesome, sadistic imagery that we don't respond to.”

Gurstein's 1996 book The Repeal of Reticence chronicled the history of America's cultural and legal struggles over free speech, obscenity, sexual liberation and modern art. In it, she acknowledges that those who have fought to keep private matter private have largely yielded in recent years to a widespread acceptance of the crass — and sometimes violent and obscene — imagery of mainstream advertising.

Yet while apathy may be the rule in Gurstein's view, some Americans have broken ranks in recent years to complain about ads they think are intended to provoke rather than please.

In September, D Magazine publisher Wick Allison destroyed an entire print run of that month's issue of the Dallas-based magazine because it contained two ads he found distasteful.

Last year, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic and Abercrombie and Fitch raised eyebrows — and public ire — for running erotic ads featuring children and teens.

This year, Gucci got heat for its premiere fall-line image featuring a woman crawling in the dirt toward a shirtless and evidently aroused man.

Gurstein said she's not sure how or if such advertising affects her or other women. But perhaps more mysterious, she said, is the fact that ads which “dehumanize, and objectify” women are able to move products at all.

“My fear is that people get used to what is shocking and it coarsens everyone's sensibilities,” she said. “It's insidious.”

Yet Gurstein thinks those who are tempted to despair over American culture's increasingly vulgar imagery should be encouraged by the backlash Calvin Klein and others suffered after their attempted assault on childhood innocence.

She also found publisher Allison's decision encouraging. Allison would not say which ads distressed him, though one of them is widely believed to be Gucci's fall-line image.

“This is a positive sign,” Gurstein said of the move, which Allison said he made at “great” financial cost to himself.

A Catholic convert from Methodism, Allison called the ads in question “obscene, vulgar, inappropriate and stupid.” He added that the companies that submitted the ads were bluntly informed to “never to send us that kind of advertising again.”

A glossy review of Dallas fashion, arts and culture, D Magazine circulates in the nation's fourth-largest fashion market. Founder, publisher and editor Allison explained that under such conditions advertisers are forced to do pretty much what he tells them to do.

‘Commercial Desperation’

“These are two fashion houses that are well-known and desperate to do anything they can to achieve any notoriety to stay alive. I make them pay in advance,” Allison said. “I refuse to play along or to degrade my magazine or offend my readers in the service of somebody's commercial desperation.”

Allison said the reaction of his staff and readership was almost universally positive.

“It's a liberal group of people and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, especially by young women in our office,” Allison said, adding, “but I would have done it whether the reaction was positive or negative.”

Allison said he's received roughly 1,200 hundred letters of support from his trendy Dallas subscribers. “One or two” people wrote to complain, he said.

Jenny Parker, a spokesman for the magazine New York, which shares a similar market niche with D Magazine, said New York publisher Allen Katz reviews ads on a case-by-case basis and that “this particular ad [from Gucci's fall-line] did not raise any concerns.”

Parker said she was not going to respond to claims Allison made about the motives of advertisers or the quality of their ads, but noted that New York got very minimal complaints about the Gucci ad.

Gucci advertising chief Frazier Conlon did not return Register calls about his fall-line image.

At the Dec. 16 Jubilee of the Fashion World in Rome, Pope John Paul II told an audience of fashion executives and designers they had a responsibility to “transmit love of beauty” and to use their work to raise spirits to God.

Sisters Laura Biagiotti and Raffaella Curiel, of the Fendi fashion family, were in attendance, sitting prayerfully in the front row at a morning Mass that began the event. The night before, entrepreneurs, craftsmen and fashion designers gathered at the Basilica of St. Eugene to reflect on topics like the problems of child labor in apparel factories, wastefulness in luxury and provocative advertising.

“May your work raise the spirit to the One who transforms life's efforts into joy,” the Pope prayed during his homily.

The Holy Father reminded those present that beauty can only be transmitted when its stewards are inspired by healthy moral principles, and that such principles were “the patrimony of every authentically human culture.”

Ads Reflect Culture

Gurstein said today's ad images are a mere reflection of the topics being addressed on the print pages they face.

It was in the late 19th Century, she said, that “invasive reporters” began to divulge small personal details such as what a woman wore at her wedding or divorce proceedings — details most people at the time thought were best kept private, Gurstein said.

“They thought these things pollute the public sphere,” Gurstein explained.

“The people who fought [this kind of journalism] were concerned that if you spend too much time on private matters it trivializes things that are important, like sexual intimacy and marriage, which become trivial and small and laughable as a result.”