Calvin Klein’s Fall Denim Ads Redefine the Meaning of ‘Sex Sells’

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Photo: Mario Sorrenti/Calvin Klein Jeans

Calvin Klein's advertising strategy relies on a simple, time-tested formula: Take some hot young celebrities and models, remove most of their clothing, and boom, you've got a billboard to stop traffic. Recent campaigns involved Kendall Jenner in a thong and Justin Bieber showing off his tattoos. But for fall, the brand is taking the sex-sells mantra in a new direction with its denim campaign, partnering with Tinder on a series of ads about sexting.

The images, shot by Mario Sorrenti, still feature plenty of hot bodies, but this time, text — as in, an actual text message — sits front and center, inviting viewers to imagine they're creeping on private conversations. Adding to the voyeurism, one of the campaign images stars a real-life couple, actor Will Peltz and his girlfriend Kenya Kinski-Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones and actress Nastassja Kinski. They're pictured canoodling under an emoji-heavy text exchange in which a guy asks his girlfriend not to come home quite yet because he's bringing home a date. An asterisk at the bottom notes, "Inspired by actual events and people." 

Photo: Mario Sorrenti Photo: Mario Sorrenti/Calvin Klein Jeans

In other words, the ads invoke a historic (and historically controversial) Calvin Klein theme — not just sex, but the feeling that you're seeing something that you're not supposed to see. But while they're unmistakably on-brand, they also feel like a step forward for a company that just last summer was still relying on Kate Moss nostalgia to sell its products. Sure, it's hardly groundbreaking social science to note that modern dating involves the internet, and yes, there's something uncomfortably forced about pegging an ad campaign to those crazy millennials and their iPhones. But the ads don't just recognize that we're living in an age of Tinder; they're actually appearing on Tinder, which is the new part. 

The partnership with Tinder consists of an in-app campaign in which users can choose to swipe right or left. The brand also teamed up with Vice, which last year raised $500 million on the strength of its purported understanding of what the kids are into. This fall, the images will run in ten Vice markets — but only on the website, not in the print magazine. (They’ll appear in more traditional print markets starting next month.) The prominent Calvin Klein billboard on Houston Street in Soho will feature an image starring a same-sex couple, models Reid Rohling and Ethan James Green, and photos from the campaign will appear in less-traditional formats like LED screens in cities like Bangkok and São Paulo.

Photo: Mario Sorrenti Photo: Mario Sorrenti/Calvin Klein Jeans

With so much money at stake, fashion advertising tends to stick with what it knows. While Burberry has gained plaudits throughout the industry for its innovative digital campaigns, not many brands have actually followed suit. Models sexting might feel like old news, but in a business where printed pages in a fashion magazine are still considered the pinnacle of prestige, advertising on Tinder is not something we should take lightly.