Drawing the Line: Controversial Ad Campaigns from Fashion Brands
By Allison Miller
In November of 2022, major fashion brand Balenciaga found itself under fire on social media after a controversial advertising campaign. The holiday campaign featured images of the brand’s teddy bear bags dressed in bondage harnesses. While these bags and accessories were shown by adult models on the runway during Paris fashion week, the controversy surrounding this specific advertisement was the fact that young children were photographed holding the bags.
An additional advertisement for the Spring 2023 collection from Balenciaga, this time with an office theme, also featured the teddy bear bags. Viewers quickly noticed that in the background of these images, under a Balenciaga bag, there appeared to be court documents. When examined, these papers seemed to include text from the 2008 Supreme Court case United States v. Williams, which ruled that child pornography is illegal and not protected by free speech.
Social media users were quick to accuse Balenciaga of child exploitation and pedophilia. People who were once loyal to Balenciaga urged celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian, that actively endorse and work closely with the brand, to issue statements. Approximately one week after the original release of the images, Balenciaga issued an initial statement on their Instagram story stating that their holiday campaign was removed from all platforms, apologizing for any offense they caused, and acknowledging that their bear bags should not have been featured with children. They went on to say that they “strongly condemn abuse of children in any form” and would be taking legal action against the parties responsible for the “unapproved items” in their Spring 2023 campaign shoot.
One day after their initial statement, Balenciaga held true to their promise of making things right and filed a $25 million lawsuit against the production company North Six Inc. and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins. Balenciaga continued to claim that the documents were placed in their photoshoot without their knowledge or approval.
On November 28th, the day after Kim Kardashian issued a statement on Twitter that she would be “reevaluating [her] relationship with the brand”, Balenciaga shared a single photo to their Instagram account further addressing the situation. In this statement, the brand takes responsibility for its oversight in the release of the images and attributes the use of the controversial court documents in the photoshoot to a third party who was supposed to provide “fake office documents,” which they say was confirmed in writing. The court papers that were actually included were suspected to be “real legal papers most likely coming from the filming of a television drama” which Balenciaga called “reckless negligence.”
The controversy surrounding the recent Balenciaga scandal is one of many circumstances where prominent fashion brands have been accused of inappropriate advertisements. A notable example from over 40 years ago is Calvin Klein in 1980, with an ad featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields in sexually provocative poses and the statement “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The advertisement was removed from airing on CBS and ABC due to Shields’ young age. Additionally, in the past 2 decades, American Apparel was frequently called out for overly sexual ads featuring young models up until the removal of founder Dov Charney. Many of the ads were even banned overseas in the UK as they were deemed too inappropriate.
The list of brand advertisements featuring provocative or inappropriate subjects is lengthy. Even well-respected brands like Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent have found themselves under fire. Advertisers frequently give the justification that "sex sells" and that the shock effect draws customers to the business. In these cases, the fundamental issue is the oversexualization of minors.
Most marketing professionals can attest that each decision made on the set of a photoshoot for a brand is meticulous, and for brands like Balenciaga, millions of dollars go into each advertisement, which means ads like these, never should have been approved. In addition, product lines and campaigns are planned months or even years in advance. Set designers and stage crews may spend hours positioning each prop on a set as well as intricately styling and posing the models. Large campaign decisions are often made by multiple individuals, typically within a brand or with the help of a third party they may work with. Not only are details rarely looked over, most decisions are confirmed in writing, as mentioned by Balenciaga. This leaves many fans that cannot help but wonder how advertisements like this are continuously being approved. The inclusion of the court documents in the Spring 2023 campaign, some are claiming, is a logical oversight by Balenciaga. If the agreements in writing between both parties truly stated that the documents included in the set were to be false office documents, then the brand may not have noticed the inclusion of the controversial case papers. Yet, a large factor in the entire scandal is the court documents in one advertisement coupled with children modeling in inappropriate settings in another. The selection of children as models in the Balenciaga campaign, and many others, is difficult to write off as a simple ‘team oversight.’
The oversexualization of young models is historically a widespread practice in the fashion industry, as many individuals begin their career as teenagers and a young look is sensationalized. The ideal body type for a female model reflects a body that has not matured fully. For decades, young models like Brooke Shields in 1980 were included in campaigns that many consider too mature for their age. Controversy about the exploitation of children is not new in the fashion industry, but there are far less instances in recent years where advertisements are banned or pulled from the media.
Balenciaga has acknowledged their oversight in their campaign, yet there are still many arguments that the choices they made should not have reached the eyes of the public in the first place. Balenciaga’s holiday and Spring 2023 campaigns are a small piece of the ongoing conversation about whether advertisements of this kind are truly innocent mistakes or maliciously intentional, a way to get people talking, no matter the cost. The fashion industry has progressed significantly toward choosing diverse and appropriate models. Situations such as the Balenciaga scandal are a learning experience for brands about the importance of careful review in the release of any brand imagery.