If, for some inexplicable reason, I were tasked with assembling a list of companies whose advertising sexualized adolescents, I know who I would list first: Calvin Klein. Some have argued that past ad campaigns have bordered on child pornography, and I know I’ve certainly been skeeved-out by them.
I’m not sure who would be second on my list, but I’m pretty certain it would not be Clearasil … at least not until this week.
Historically, their ads have not exuded sex.
Their past marketing has gotten as racy as this:
But it seems that Clearasil has discarded its wholesome image, along with the pimple creams of yesteryear. Their latest “May cause confidence” campaign is the talk of the news and the blogosphere.
(And it’s accompanied by a somewhat surreal website.) The ads, known as “Mom,” “Babypics” and “Auditorium,” depict teenagers displaying their newfound clear-skin-inspired confidence by making socially-inappropriate sexual overtures. I could try to describe the ads, but it’s more effective to watch them:
The first two ads are the ones getting the attention. CNN’s Prime News With Erica Hill featured the controversy last week, as did Good Morning America. You can watch the CNN coverage here. Commentator Mike Galanos found the ads to be “disgusting.” His guests, Debbie Wolf of “People Against Censorship” and Melissa Henson of “The Parent’s Television Council,” weighed in with the predictable free speech vs. save the children responses. The Clearasil folks did not appear on the show, but submitted the following statement.
“Our objective is to inform and entertain, not to offend. We have found that Clearasil consumers found this ad as we intended: a humorous and unrealistic presentation of an awkward family event.”
I’ve been thinking about these commercials and the reaction to them and trying to figure out where I stand. When I first watched the CNN coverage, I was put off by Mike Galanos’ bombasticity (is that a word?). And Debbie Wolf was kind of cute and didn’t take herself too seriously, so I liked her more. But that’s not the only way I form opinions.
If this were a censorship/prior restraint kind of issue, it would be pretty clear for me. I pretty much always err on the side of free speech (although I don’t believe commercial speech is exactly the same as regular speech), and I would object to government involvement. But this does not seem to be about that; rather it’s mostly a call to Clearasil to take the ads off the air. And I do believe in corporate responsibility and accountability.
I don’t think the matter here is clear cut. Take the “Mom” commercial. I definitely found it creepy. But at the same time, the image of the young-looking teenager hitting on the older woman evoked Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Not exactly a sexually threatening image.
And there’s nothing MILF-esque about the mom. She’s very middle-aged, has not invited the move and seems as puzzled as the audience. So, it seems a bit of a stretch to simply reduce the ad to its sexual aspects. But, as the AOL News Blog observes, if you change the mom to a dad and the teenage boy to a teenage girl, you’ve got a disturbingly creepy scenario — one that has no over-the-top humor. (And, of course, I’m imagining how it would play with same-sex adult and child characters. Imagine the outrage then!) Similarly, the “Babypics” ad is also kind of creepy as is, but would seem particularly predatory if the daughter were a son.
In any case, while Clearasil is clearly using humor, they’re also using socially-inappropriate sexual behavior as a proxy for confidence. (Except in the “Auditorium” ad. That one seems pretty harmless.) And I guess I’d rather they didn’t do that.
But perhaps I could be convinced otherwise. What do you think about these ads? And do you think they’re harmful to kids?