women lie lazily across twin beds, one is wearing very little clothing,
the other even less – only a garter belt, stockings and stiletto
heels. The image is steamy and suggestive, perfect for the opening shot
of a soft porn film. The only problem is, it isn’t the opening shot
of a soft porn film.
It’s an ad. To sell clothes. To women.
The image is part of a national advertising campaign for Versace and it’s
been published in a host of mainstream magazines, including Talk, Elle
and GQ. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ad is that it doesn’t
deviate far from the norm. In recent months, fashion houses seem to be
trying to top one another with highly-charged sexual ads that some say
border on pornography. Randall Rothenberg, the chief marketing officer
at the consulting firm of Booz-Allen & Hamilton and a columnist for
Advertising Age magazine, calls it the continuation of a long-standing
trend. "The history of advertising is a history of advertisers walking
up to the edge of contemporary morality and seeing how far they can push
it," he says.
If you flip pages of the Dallas lifestyle magazine, D, you won’t
find the Versace ad or any of the other provocative ad campaigns, for
that matter. Wick Allison, D’s editor and publisher, has drawn a
line – and a very public one at that. He made headlines last year
for dumping 70,000 copies of the September issue of his publication after
he discovered two ads that he described as "obscene." Although
Allison has consistently refused to identify the specific advertisers
involved, various media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal
and The Washington Post, have reported that Gucci is one of the offenders.
Its ad features a scantily clad female model kneeling in front of a bare
chested man who, judging by the rather large bulge in his pants, is more
than a little happy to see her. For its part, Gucci has remained silent
about the incident, refusing to comment on this or any of its advertising
At first blush, it’s tempting to view the D incident purely in moralistic
terms, especially when you consider Allison’s background. He’s
a former publisher of the National Review, he edited a version of the
Bible, and he wrote a biblical quiz book called That’s in the Bible?
In fact, that’s how most news organizations covered the story last
year. They derided the fashion industry for its provocative ad campaigns
and applauded Allison for his willingness to take a stand in the name
Allison himself offers a different reason for his decision to trash an
entire press run of his magazine: it made good business sense. He believes
that if readers got a look at the offensive ads, it would turn them off
the publication, ultimately decreasing sales and D’s overall value.
Sure, he concedes, it cost a lot of money, but not as much as the publication
is worth. "The magazine, as a whole, is much more valuable than any
one advertiser in it," he says. "Protection of the magazine’s
franchise is the number one duty. So it becomes a very easy decision when
it comes to especially egregious ads."
Allison says he is also looking out for his advertisers’ best interests.
"Readers respond to advertising. We don’t want those wonderful
advertisers to be run out of town – that loses an advertising contract
for us," he says with a laugh. "We’re here to help."
From an advertising standpoint, a magazine is a lot like a shopping mall,
he continues. "The landlord takes great care in assembling the right
mix of retailers. Anybody who violates his standards is tossed out –
that’s in the lease – because to attract the audience you have
to have the right mix and you have to have the right level of quality.
We’re an upscale mall from an advertising viewpoint. We have certain
But D magazine is by no means devoid of sexual content. Allison readily
concedes that the magazine’s editors will sometimes produce fashion
spreads that would be nixed if submitted in advertisement form. He cited
last year’s August cover as an example – it featured a woman
covered with strategically placed handfuls of whipped cream in a tribute
to the trumpeter Herb Alpert’s 1965 album, "Whipped Cream &
Other Delights." "But you know, that was an editorial decision,"
says Allison. "We don’t allow advertisers to make editorial
How did the particular incident at D come about? Allison attributes it
to an internal communication failure. "One department thought I had
approved it, the other department thought I had approved it, both had
questions about it – I hadn’t approved it," he explains.
He only noticed the offending items while flipping through an advance
copy of the issue, the final copies of which were already on their way
to newsstands. He ordered the trucks to the recycling center instead.
Allison is hopeful that other magazines will follow his lead. But Rothenberg
remains pessimistic. "This is one person, making one decision,"
he says. "One publisher rebelling in Dallas probably isn’t going
to mean too much."