No ethereal women wandering through misty gardens for Calvin Klein, thank you. Having realized the best way to sell blue jeans and underwear is by selling sex, why should he censor himself now?
"In the kingdom of passion, the ruler is Obsession. Calvin Klein's Obsession."
So says a sultry voice in one of Klein's four television commercials for his new perfume Obsession. The campaign was scheduled to premiere on the "Today" show this morning. Unlike the print ad for Obsession, which appears in fashion magazines this month and shows three nude men attending closely to one nude woman, everyone is clothed in the TV commercials, but that doesn't really matter.
In the kingdom of passion, the ruler may be Obsession, but the consort is Sex.
The four 30-second spots, written and directed by photographer Richard Avedon and filmed by cinematographer Nestor Almendros, focus on four different characters: an older man, a younger man, a boy and a woman, all of them fascinated by an elusive woman. Just how fascinated? Nothing direct, mind you, but plenty of suggestions.
In each commercial, one of the four says a few passionate lines as the object of desire, South African model Jose Borain, flits across the screen, upsetting a chess board, caressing the young man's lips with lily petals, escaping from a scarf's stranglehold, pleading "Save me," receiving the blessing of a 15-year-old boy's hand upon her forehead.
"She loved me and she's gone," says the boy in the segment titled "The Boy's Story." "Did I invent her? The secrets in her twilight eyes, the whispers at my bedside, her arms, her mouth, her amber hair and oh, the smell of it. She's deep in my blood, the only woman I'll ever love."
Then Borain's face appears, partly obscured by a bottle of Obsession.
"Love is child's play once you've known Obsession," she half whispers.
"Ah, the smell of it," says the boy.
You don't often hear the word "smell" in perfume advertisements. Manufacturers usually prefer the more discreet "scent," "aroma" or "fragrance." Not Klein. All four of his ads end with a moaned "Ah, the smell of it."
The print ad for Obsession was shot by photographer Bruce Weber in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He said the grainy, blue-tinted picture ended up so steamy because "We were in a warm place. People would go swimming at night, and it sort of happened from there."
It isn't very hard to tell what's going on in the photograph, what with the bare limbs and all.
The TV commercial, however, can be read as the viewer wishes -- and must be, since Klein and Avedon won't talk about the sure-to-be-talked-about campaign. Are all four speakers, including the boy and the other woman, Borain's lovers? It's the same kind of titillating question that outraged some people when Klein had Brooke Shields tell the world that nothing came between her and her Calvins. And when you're trying to enter the perfume market, which is not now expanding, how better to make an impression than to raise similarly racy thoughts in people's minds?
Like many television ads these days, the Obsession commercials are made up of abrupt cuts like music videos. They also tell a story, even if rather obliquely, an increasingly popular advertising technique.
"Cinematic is definitely a trend," said Annette Green, executive director of the Fragrance Foundation, the nonprofit, educational arm of the perfume industry. "It works so well because it's very hard to define fragrance. What you're really seeing is very subliminal -- the visualization of fragrance is essential."
Avedon has been doing "cinematic" for years. With his collaborator, writer Doon Arbus, he created the Brooke Shields commercials and then the spots in which women talked about their lives and thus, it was implied, about Calvin Klein jeans. He also gave birth to The Diors, a trio of effete characters clad in Dior clothes who appeared monthly in national magazines, romping through flirtation, marriage, childbirth and a death that looked very close to a resurrection.
Ah, the smell of it.