‘An image can be stronger than an army’: The fashion ads that shook society

Editor’s Note: In October 2015, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing joined CNN Style as guest editor. He commissioned a series of features on the theme of #diversity, exploring issues around fashion, politics, gender, family, race and culture.

CNN  — 

“Advertising reflects the mores of society, but does not influence them,” wrote advertising powerhouse David Ogilvy in 1982, supposing a sort of ethical neutrality for the industry he pioneered.

That same year, Bruce Weber shot the Calvin Klein advertisement starring Tom Hintnaus that changed the face of advertising, presenting audiences with a homoeroticism unfamiliar to mainstream media, and perhaps proving the legendary patriarch wrong – advertising can, and has, changed the way that the world sees things.

“When we passed a shelter almost everyone on my side of the bus swiveled his or her head to get a better look at the image, which was basically shoving the man’s physicality down the audience’s throat,” explained art and fashion critic Ingrid Sichy, of the first time she saw the Calvin Klein billboard, with Hintanaus’ sexuality front and center.

The image was shot during the peak of the AIDS crisis, when homosexuality was commonly affiliated not with desirability but with fear: Weber’s underwear ad was shocking and sexy and subversive – and it marked a new wave of fashion advertising that challenged societal norms, as well as selling clothes.

More than a fantasy

As Emma Hope Allwood, Fashion Features Editor at Dazed explained, “People like to downplay fashion advertising as frivolous fantasy or only focus on its negatives, but these are images that have the power to both comment on and change our cultural landscape.” Advertising is what dictates aspiration – and when a subjugated group is promoted within that framework, the impact it can have on society’s attitudes is immense.

United Colors of Benetton by Oliviero Toscani, 1991

In her 2013 essay “Beauty… and the Beast of Advertising,” renowned author on advertising psychologies Jean Kilbourne stated that, “ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be.”

By promoting diversity – of sexuality, race, gender – on the billboards that present images of regularity to society, advertising can make the unfamiliar familiar; and can expose the world to a new normal, one that includes marginalized groups.

Reality check

Also in 1982, photographer Oliviero Toscani was appointed art director for the Benetton Group, creating advertisements that viscerally confronted audiences with images like that of a man dying in a hospital bed of AIDS or – apparently equally shocking – people of different ethnicities all hanging out together.

By using the billboards that only a multi-million fashion conglomerate could afford to challenge taboos, he brought issues of segregation and oppression to the mainstream in the same way that Weber did; making people turn their heads when they passed a bus shelter and establishing a visual dialogue around the unfamiliar. His approach to advertising offered a kind of exposure therapy to the world: presenting that which was often hidden from mainstream media and forcing it into the public eye.

“There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality,” he told CNN. “An image can be stronger than an army.” And, through the media attention that his advertisements created – not just for colorful jumpers and wearable denims, but also for issues like the Gulf War, racial inequality and Death Row sentencing in America – he exposed a reality that was often ignored by the world.

Nicola Formichetti, the creative director of Diesel (who spent several years collaborating with Toscani) credits his understanding of advertising to the legendary maverick.

“I learned the importance of advertisement from Oliviero; that we can use the space that we have as a vehicle for spreading a message, not just for selling bags and sunglasses,” he explained.

Diesel Spring/Summer 2015 by Nick Knight

A man who has put women like Winnie Harlow (whose skin is marked by vitiligo) and Jillian Mercado (a wheelchair-bound woman with muscular dystrophy) in the public eye as brand icons for Diesel, he has promoted beauty in all of its forms.

“Doing these things is inspiring for us, as well,” he said. “For example, when we shot Jillian, we both cried. She started saying ‘you’re going to change my life; you’re going to put a person in a wheelchair on a billboard. Imagine the impact of this to people who think they’re not good enough in society.’

“Using her in a campaign is a global brand saying, this girl is as cool as the boy who she’s sitting next to. It’s about glorifying a normal thing, showing the reality of where we live, and it can be very powerful.”

Bridging the gender gap

In 2010, Riccardo Tisci cast Lea T as the first trans model in a fashion campaign with his Autumn-Winter 2011 Givenchy images. Since then, she has been appointed the face of Redken – becoming the first trans model in a beauty campaign, too.

“Modeling was not something I had originally planned or wanted for myself,” she explained. “I am lucky and thankful to my friend Riccardo Tisci, who started me with one of his amazing campaigns for Givenchy. Through my job, I’ve been trying to give a positive message to everyone out there. I hope I succeed. I feel pride, honor, responsibility; that I finally made it and that everything is possible.”

&OtherStories Autumn/Winter 2015, featuring Hari Nef

What Lea T, and Tisci, achieved by placing a trans model in a hyper-glossy fashion scenario has paved the way for a new sort of inclusivity that has since resulted in vastly increased visibility for a previously marginalized community (see: Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, Call me Caitlin, the recent spate of diversified casting at NYFW).

Trans model Hari Nef credits Lea T’s Givenchy campaign as responsible for the “transgender tipping point” of the past year, telling us that “It was a powerful precedent… I’m not sure I would be modeling right now if it weren’t for Lea T, Connie Fleming before her, and Andreja Pejic after her.”

Nef has recently been cast as one of the faces of a new & Other Stories capsule collection, which has employed an all-trans behind-the-scenes team alongside trans models, the series confronts not only the lack of trans people in front of the camera, but equally the lack of them behind it.

“Advertising instructs,” explains Nef. “Advertising has the power to tell people what is beautiful, important, aspirational, and more. Diverse casting has the power to destigmatize, to redistribute power and beauty to those who have none in the eyes of most. Representation and visibility have their own tricky politics, but inclusion stands to benefit the included.”