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Calvin Klein: From Marky Mark to Belieber

Calvin Klein: you love his clothes and you lust after his models. The latest name to be added to CK’s long list of noteworthy models is Justin Bieber himself, who is making his debut for the brand’s Spring 2015 campaign. In the ad for Calvin Klein Jeans, Bieber is shirtless while a steamy Lara Stone gropes his chest. In the Calvin Klein Underwear ad, Bieber stands in only underwear, giving the camera a smoldering glare, tattoos and bulge in full view.

Around 1980, a 15-year old Brooke Shields was featured in a series of advertisements for Calvin Klein Jeans. In the print ads, young Shields was fully clothed and had one leg up in the air. In the television commercials, Shields, who was again fully clothed, sat with her legs spread and asked viewers, “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” For the ‘80s, this type of advertising was seen as very provocative and inappropriate. It made people uncomfortable, especially since the model was under 18. But Brooke Shields and her Calvins solidified the brand’s place as the original designer jean of that time.

Probably the most criticized ad from Calvin Klein came in 1992. Model Kate Moss and heartthrob and aspiring rapper Mark Wahlberg posed together for one of the most iconic Calvin Klein images to date. The ad, which jump started both of their careers, featured a 17-year old Moss, shirtless and straddling bad boy Marky Mark.

In 1995, Calvin Klein launched a campaign that sent child welfare authorities, the Catholic League and the American Family Association on a morality rampage. The ad featured young models set in front of a wood-paneled basement and made it look like an old school casting call. The print ads on billboards and buses made people uneasy, but it was the television commercial that really set the public off. To some critics, it looked like amateur or even child pornography. It even yielded an investigation into the brand, which was dropped once they provided proof of age for all the models in the advertisements.

When Calvin Klein came out with their first line of children’s underwear in 1999, they produced another controversial ad. It featured young boys and girls playing, arm wrestling and jumping around in nothing but Calvin Klein underwear. The campaign was ultimately cancelled after it received criticism from psychologists, conservative groups and even the Mayor of New York, who called it child pornography.

In 2008, Eva Mendes starred in a commercial for CK’s Secret Obsession fragrance where she rolled around in bed, topless. The ad was banned from US networks as it was “too provocative.” Mendes has been quoted saying that because the advertisements were banned “it meant [they were] totally Calvin, totally provocative and a little controversial.” By that time, the role of Calvin Klein ads had been defined. By the 2000’s, controversial ads were expected, even if some people believed they went too far.

The following year, a 50-foot billboard was erected in SoHo featuring four models, all topless, lying around on a couch on top of each other. The American Family Association went crazy, claiming that the ad suggested foursome sex. The association went as far as sending tens of thousands of email complaints to Calvin Klein, and some of the general public even boycotted the brand.

Fast-forward to the Spring 2015 campaign. Calvin Klein decided to continue its tried and true method using sex to sell, but this time, the brand decided to tap into the vast market potential of millennials. Who better to reach them than Justin Bieber, one of the most followed celebrities on social media? The company selected Bieber at the right time in his career, if you could even call it that. He has made mistakes, caused controversy and has not been doing much music wise. He has received some bad press for his actions but that is exactly why he is a great choice for Calvin Klein. Also, his fans are the definition of dedicated and will defend him to the end. “Beliebers” talk about anything and everything Justin, ranging from who he is dating to what he had for breakfast. They beg him to have their children and threaten anyone who disapproves of their idol. So when this campaign launched, they talked about it incessantly. They did the work for Calvin Klein and their marketing team.

What the ad campaign falls short in is its lack of appeal to men. Because of the negative attention Bieber has received in the media, he resonates poorly with the male population. Image advertisements, like most Calvin Klein ads, sell a fantasy or lifestyle and not many guys out there strive to be like Justin Bieber. According to, a 2014 E-Score ranking listed Bieber as the fifth most-hated man in the United States, in a list that included OJ Simpson and Bernie Madoff. Even though Bieber and Stone tried to emulate Wahlberg and Moss’s campaign, he is no Marky Mark and what is worse, he is not a nameless model men can pretend to be. In the eyes of the media, Justin is a feminine, punk, child star that grew up in the industry and now feels entitled and above the law. Whether that is true or not, it is hard to rebrand yourself in the public eye once your reputation has been diminished.

So maybe Bieber won’t drastically raise male underwear sales but his ads did raise Calvin Klein’s social media following by a combined 3.6 million followers. The #mycalvins hashtag generated 1.6 million Twitter mentions only 48 hours after the launch of Bieber’s ads, which, according to Women’s Wear Daily, is five times the number of mentions Kim Kardashian’s #breaktheinternet hashtag received in total.

The criteria for models in Calvin Klein ads is always sexy and mysterious. Some say Bieber does not fit into either category. Others say they miss the old Calvin ads, the ones that were sexy but still captivating. The bottom line is, these ads were created to generate buzz, and they are doing just that. All the haters and the Beliebers out there that keep talking about Bieber’s bulge are falling right into the hands of Calvin Klein and his advertising team. So say what you will about it, but photo-shopped or not, it will certainly be an ad you won’t soon forget.

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