Offensive Ads Just Giving Women What They Want?

by Charlotte on April 22, 2010 · 25 comments

Here’s one mild example. I was too horrified to post the worst offenders. Feel free to click through and check out others if you are so inclined. Be ready to wish for your retinas to detach.

One model in a ball gown stabbing another through the neck. A gang bang of a man perpetrated by other men clad in haute couture. A woman fishing a Jimmy Choo bag out of a pool… wherein lies a floating male corpse. If you’ve skimmed the ads in any fashion mag recently then you probably already know the ads I’m talking about. They’re bizarre, fantastical and incredibly violent with an emphasis on sexual violence and strangely the product being sold – general luxury clothing and accessories – is secondary to the macabre storyline being played out. But that’s not the scary part. According to new research from The Journal of Consumer Research, there’s a reason for the recent proliferation of grotesque imagery in high fashion ads: we women like it.

Offensive advertising is nothing new. I’ve posted about the Dolce & Gabbana gang rape ad (apparently a theme with them), the creepy fitness ads in Men’s Health, the hilariously bad diet ads, the homicidal video game ads and even Lady Gaga’s glamorization of rape and murder in her videos, among others. The twist this time around is that it turns out we women prefer these ads to their more peaceful counterparts. The high fashion industry is all about eye balls and one way to get those is to rip them right out of your sockets (and serve them on a bloody platter to a model wearing nothing but expensive shoes).

The researchers found that in many cases, the key to constructing an engaging fashion ad was not to make it likeable or conventionally pretty, but to make it engaging.

“The merely pretty was too easily passed over; grotesque juxtapositions were required to stop and hold the fashion consumer flipping through Vogue,” the authors write. “For the brands that choose to use grotesque imagery—roughly one-fourth, according to a content analysis—the promise is that greater engagement with ad imagery will lead to a more intense and enduring experience of the brand.”

The study – which only examined a paltry 18 women – claims that women see the ads as “high art” or as a “type of fiction” leading them to study the ad postulating about the story being told as well as the artistic details like lighting, composition and so forth.

On one level I can see the authors’ point. I have found myself flipping mindlessly through a fashion mag only to be jerked out of my reverie by a bizarre ad. And I hate to admit it but I do stare at it longer than I do at, say, those stupid perfume ads where everyone is wearing white on a beach and yet no one has muddy sand on them. This attention however does not translate into purchasing the high end product being advertised. At least not for me. The more appalled I am by the ad, the more negative associations I attach to the brand. Not that I ever buy luxury goods – I’ve never owned so much as a knock-off of a designer purse – but I can tell you that even if I had a million dollars I’d never buy anything Dolce & Gabbana as I now think of them as the gang rape brand, the official spokesbrand for Darfur if you will. (Rather, I’d buy you a monkey, haven’t you always wanted a monkey? Or a K car? I hear they’re a nice, reliable automobile.)

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’m going to call shenanigans on this study: just because women may look at an ad longer – and 18 women said they liked macabre ads – doesn’t mean most women like them. And if the point of advertising is to sell something then I’d have to see proof that these ads move merch before I’ll believe my fellow sisters really do like it rough.

What’s your take? Do you find these ads offensive or intriguing? Does it make the brand being advertised more memorable to you in a good way? Is there a “line” that shouldn’t be crossed or do “lines” not apply to art ads? Have you ever bought a luxury item? (Just curious on the last one!)

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber Rose April 22, 2010 at 4:11 am

If I find an ad offensive I won't buy that product. I have never, nor will I ever buy a Toyota due to some of their offensive ads.
I don't look through vogue etc so have not seen these ads but if I stopped and looked at them longer it wouldn't translate to a purchase. There have been clever ads over the years that make you stop and think, but they're not images of gang rapes; murders or anything like that.

I don't understand why people would think "Hey this brands ad had dead people in it – maybe I'll pop out and buy some of their product, I'd like to be dead too"……… wait that doesn't work ?????


Lasserday April 22, 2010 at 4:14 am

I'm with you on this one… there is no way I would buy any products that were advertised in this way. Not that I would ever buy high end stuff anyway. :)


azusmom April 22, 2010 at 4:23 am

I also don't buy the high end stuff (except for Lululemon and Lucy, but seeing as they're geared toward the yoga/fitness crowd, they're ads tend to be earthy-crunchy and not offensive). I find these ads to be hideously offensive, and will go out of my way to avoid the products.
Plus, 18 women saying they like an ad does NOT make it successful, imho.


Averie April 22, 2010 at 6:50 am

luxury items were my middle name….oh boy. i wont reveal it all but let's just say i bought everything and anything i wanted before skylar. life was ALOT diff. And people who say being rich doesnt buy you happiness…well, it sure is fun to buy whatever it is you want :) I mean within some reason of course.

But ads that are violent or graphic or hateful…no. Would NEVER buy a product knowingly if i knew it had ads like this.


I'm Not Superhuman April 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

Those ads are definitely offensive, though they would make me stop and look longer just to see if I really saw what I thought I saw. That said, if there were ever a sliver of a chance I'd spend my entire paycheck on a D&G belt, I most definitely wouldn't if the belt were being used as a noose to hang a model in an ad. Sick.


Renee April 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Like you, I associate bad connotations with the products that are being "featured", a word I'm using very loosely here since it's really the violence being featured and the product is an after-thought. The more violent the ad, whether it's print or TV, the less apt I am to look at it, and too many = not buying the magazine anymore or watching the show associated with the violent ads. Guess I'm not their demographic. Besides, I gave up on fashion magazines, my body-image doesn't need the battering.


Rebecca April 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Honestly I find them more intriguing. Maybe it's because I know they have a niche audience. I find the mass market ads, like all the super bowl commercials this year that blatantly painted women as emasculating harpies, way more offensive. By the way, today is national jelly bean day!


KUrunner April 22, 2010 at 2:04 pm

First off, kudos on the Bare Naked Ladies reference…

Second, why the heck are these studies even being published. I'm sorry, but 18 people do NOT make up even a sliver of the population. Eighteen people don't even make up my daughter's 3rd grade class.

My question is, have any of these ads actually been published in the US? Not that I'm really a fashion magazine reader, but I don't remember seeing anything anywhere near as disturbing as the slideshow had pictured. I can't imagine that there would be an ad of several men in D&G gang rapping a naked man in Vogue. French Vogue maybe, but here?

I don't know. Maybe the gajillionaire housewives of whatever county by the stuff hoping to live out some strange fantasy.


marathonmaiden April 22, 2010 at 2:28 pm

i guess i don't really pay attention to any ads but i will admit that i'm intrigued by the ads. maybe it's just in my personality but i like darker stuff (and yes i do like happier stuff too :) ) i don't like excessive gore or extreme violence though and they don't seem to be that, they're just creepy and i do kind of like that


Geosomin April 22, 2010 at 2:53 pm

It just seems like a way for the ads to get noticed. People are ignoring ads more and more…so how to get noticed again? Offend the crap out of people. Make them "talk" about your product simply by talkning about how offensive they are. Any publicity is good publicity these days.
I'll just continue to skip the ads…
As stand alone photography these ads could maybe be considered art. As ads? Forget it. I wouldn't buy their stuff…
Bu then I'm all cynical like that :)


Jenn April 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I'm with ya. I don't think I'd buy anything from D&G for reasons beyond the ads although those ads are simply creepy. I get being "artistic" however I'm not sure why "artistic" always seems to have to lean so far into the dark side of life. That's an entirely other topic thought. I've never bought designer bag either. One I can't afford them. Two even if I could I have trouble spending money on stuff like that. I really value simplicity and respect those who have lots of money who choose simplicity over decadence.


jenn April 22, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Oh yeah…isn't that top picture playing tribute to the novel, The Virgin Suicides? I loved that book when I was younger.


Amy April 22, 2010 at 5:17 pm

As someone who knows a fair amount of psychology, the "study" you cite makes my head hurt. 18 women…really? In studies like this, 18 = 0. I don't know The Journal of Consumer Research is peer-reviewed, but if it is, every peer should be shot. Okay, maybe not shot…but certainly reprimanded.

I've generally solved the problem of horrifying magazine ads by not reading magazines. Seeing such things MAY create a buzz around the company/item, but in my group of friends it would not lead to purchases. But to some people, bad press is STILL press.

Also, Barenaked Ladies RULE.


Deb (SmoothieGirl) April 22, 2010 at 6:21 pm

You are so right on all your commentary here, Charlotte (surprise!) I think that the bottom line is that the human brain remembers bad, bad things and that is what they are banking on. Think about it- think back- you remember horrible memories far easier than nice ones. Visions, incidents. Etc. And I'm with you- I'm less likely to buy anything from companies that engage in this freakish advertising behavior. I hope it's a fad that just goes away soon. Perhaps sales will go down and they'll abandon the campaign. Wishful thinking I'm sure- sigh.


Deb (SmoothieGirl) April 22, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Oh and PS on the luxury item thing: I usually am soo unbelievably low end, it borders on trailer trash. But there are a couple of things I've splashed out on: one (or two- the second was a gift) handbag that I adore- I almost kiss it daily- and has lasted and lasted and looks brand new despite being well used and loved. And a few pairs of designer jeans because they have such a huge impact on how I feel about myself (you can say I'm stupid, I'm ok with that…but it's the truth). Otherwise, I'm ghetto girl :-)


Sarahd April 22, 2010 at 6:25 pm

OFFENSIVE! And a sample size of 18? Give me a break!


Leth April 22, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Honestly speaking, if I wanted to buy D&G products, I'd buy them, regardless of what their advertising was. Now, I couldn't care less about brand names, so I'm not likely to buy them, but if I wanted to I would. Offensive ads or not.

And I have to go with the few posters who didn't find these ads that bad. Sure, they're not happy pretty situations. But I grew up on action movies and I love Oscar movies with dark off-the-wall endings. So I kind of appreciate the ads that are trying to capture people's attention by being dark and twisty (though the rape ones are over the top – death and murder are par for the course in our media society).

I find that I can intellectually appreciate them (when they don't involve rape) without necessarily associating them with the brand they're advertising.


VaMomof2 April 22, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I dislike those ads but don't stay away from certain brands because of them only because they really don't leave an impression – I think most ads are stupid (in so many, I cannot even figure out what they are selling).

I do buy luxury, not so much for myself but for my girls. I grew up wearing old hand-me-downs and have over indulged my girls to make up for it. I have my eyes on a certain purse that I hope to finally indulge myself with once the youngest has graduated from college (just 6 more years – hopefully).


Tracey April 22, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Here's my point of view as a marketer. Yes, we definitely stop and look at these ads — but that doesn't mean they're converting (causing you to do a desired action, like buy the product, look at the website, etc.). I'd have to see some data about results — but this strikes me as a lazy marketing technique. You need an ad that not only stops the viewer, but communicates your brand, and makes the viewer do something. A lot of ads (Michael Kors comes to mind) show an "aspirational" image — of a woman or a couple that you *want* to be – beautiful, rich, whatever. It communicates the brand as a luxury brand that classy women buy. Makes sense. Better yet, some ads will find a way to engage the consumer – get you to think about something (The Body Shop has some good ads about issues that get you thinking), or do something – learn more on the website, etc. That is much more powerful and measurable as an ad.

I hope these ads aren't making sales. I appreciate that you're covering these – it takes consumer awareness to get rid of crap like this.


Dr. J April 22, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I divide ads into two categories.
1) Offensive (and this includes ALL medical related ads)
2) Super Bowl worthy :-)


linteater April 22, 2010 at 8:53 pm

These ads make for interesting art. They make you think. A lot of art is meant to shock you and make you think about aspects of society that usually remain hidden.

As advertisements? Not so much. I've never been interested in purchasing designer products anyway (for 6 pairs of sunglasses I could have a high end road bike? Well that's a no-brainer). But were I suddenly inclined to purchase a $3000 skirt, I probably wouldn't choose one that touts the "benefit" of getting me gang raped.


Jody - Fit at 52 April 22, 2010 at 11:06 pm

I don't have money to buy high end stuff & glad I don't in cases like this. Yes, offensive! Of course, I love the Dr. J comment… some of those super bowl ones are pretty darn good but not all! :-)


caseykayb April 23, 2010 at 2:43 am

Perhaps this gives a second meaning to the line "But not a real green dress, that's cruel"? Those ads are just disturbing. If were able to buy those brands, I would definitely quit after seeing those. There are many, better ways to get attention than that. In fact, it seems that resorting to violence and such is just a company running out of new ways to draw in customers.


LMG April 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm

I'm the type who saves up and buys a pair of nice Seven jeans on ebay about once a year. (But I try them on at a fancy snooty store to get the sizing right first.)

Deisel is one brand I wouldn't buy because of their advertizing. Horribly sexist and just trying to sell with sex. Yeah, no thanks.

I do tend to pay a lot of attention to ads because the marketing and messages are interesting, and I base some of my purchasing decisions on whether the ads are tasteful, base, or trying to convey something untruthful. (Made with "whole grains"? Must be good for me even though there are 0 grams of fiber per serving, right?)


sandra July 16, 2011 at 11:17 am

I won’t buy anything from a company whos adverts are offensive to me, including using women as sex objects in the ad campaign – I WILL NOT BUY simple, sex does not sell to me, it insults my intelligence. Sorry but I buy the stuff for my household, not my husband, so if he needs a shirt, I buy it and if I see some scantily clad woman trying to sell me said shirt, I DON’T buy it.


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