While most fashion brands use sexy models to sell their clothes, Benetton is known for its not-so-pretty, controversial advertising that depicts the likes of a frail man with AIDS and death row inmates. Though it has toyed with gay vague imagery before, Benetton has never directly dealt with gay themes – until Sisley.
The Italian clothing company's new brand is trying on envelope-pushing ads, one of which looks something like the beginning of a gay porn movie.
This ad, which ran in OUT magazine, shows a shirtless young man reclined in bed as he pushes another guy's face toward his crotch (just a thin band of clothing remains). And in coded reference to young males, known as "chicken," the ingredients for a Palm Springs Chicken Salad appears on the page with the boyish couple.
Unlike Benetton ads, Sisley's first gay media advertising is sexually charged and out of the closet.
"Sisley is a sexy brand, it's about sex and feeling sexy when you're wearing the product," says Benetton spokesman Mark Major. "There are not a lot of companies in OUT doing this."
Despite the fashion industry's omnipresent use of sex to sell its merchandise – often "forgetting" to include the very clothing they're trying to sell – few have actually used overtly gay imagery. Designers including Calvin Klein, Gucci, Versace, Abercrombie & Fitch and even Benetton itself have only teased consumers with gay vague imagery.
In 1994, Benetton created an ad with two twenty-something men wearing pastel shirts in a cheek-to-cheek embrace that left many wondering if the two were a couple. The ad appeared on billboards and in OUT magazine but the company said they were not supposed to be seen as gay, that they were in fact twins.
The company also ran a TV ad in 1995 with openly lesbian model Jenny Shimizu, with tattoos and short hair. She talks about the dress "that you love more than your boyfriend – but let's not get started on that."
What a difference a decade makes. Now, Benetton is willing to be more upfront about its purpose with those ads. "We were vague about all that," says Major. "If you provide your intentions, it might affect what people see and we want to challenge people to think."
Major takes a much more open position on Sisley's ad strategy. "A lot of (advertisers) in OUT use images that are quasi-gay. We're one of the only ones really positioned to the market, we're not trying to just smooth it over."
Photographer Terry Richardson shot the campaign that also appears in Details, Paper and other magazines with a gay, fashion-conscious audience. While the March Details ad was more sedate — showing two shirtless guys sucking on popsicles — other creatives for the campaign feature women in very sexual poses, some revealing bare breasts and bottoms. One of these ran as a billboard in lower Manhattan and garnered complaints, so the ad came down after a month. Other shots in Sisley's catalog include two men making out on a couch and two men walking hand-in-hand, one wearing a cartoon-like horse's head.
Sisley is Benetton's first return to gay media since 1995; its first ad in OUT was of the affectionate male twins in 1994 for Benetton.
As Major explains, Benetton's ad director Oliviero Toscani likes to challenge consumers with his advertising. "His agenda is to push people's thinking. He feels the way sex is a taboo subject in the US is hypocritical and that we're our own worst enemies. Why do we tell children a baby comes from a stork?"