David Allen.jpg
David Allen, Professor of Strategic Management
Earlier this month, Dolce & Gabbana ran an ad that depicts a spectacularly beautiful women being violated by a group of men. This week, Armani Junior used an ad with two young girls, no more than 6 or 7 years old, wearing make-up and photographed, according to the Spain’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Arturo Canalda, as if they were promoting “sexual tourism”. The D&G campaign ran in Spain and Italy early this month before it was pulled; the Armani campaign continues with the photo featured prominently on its website.
Both companies have gotten their share of free press. When women’s groups, children’s group and government officials protested in Spain, the newspapers and television news shows did their civic duty by covering the news — and made sure to show the ads so that everyone could decide on his or her own the extent to which the companies were appealing to prurient interests. No doubt both companies were delighted to see their ads in print and on the news for free. I will NOT print the photos here.
In this world of stakeholder management and CSR it must seem shocking that I describe the firms (i.e., the owners and top management) as delighted. Forget about shock or disgust. Fashion industry executives know that offending some stakeholders is good for sales. As long as the government does not shut you down or your own customer segments get turned off, it’s money in the bank.
The responses by the two companies have been standard procedure. Dolce & Gabbana first defended their ad, called the Spanish government “behind the times”. Not until pressure came in Italy from members of parliament did the company cave in. Designer-owner Stefano Gabbana said that he was sorry, but defended once again the creative idea behind the ad campaign. He claimed had been inspired to produce an ad campaign that would “recall an erotic dream, a sexual game.”
In his own “Rape of the Sabine Women” fantasy way, Stefano Gabbana apologized, insisting that D&G had never intended to offend anyone. This is not true. The company’s segmentation strategy is based on offending some to capture a larger part of the “rebellious with money”. By taking stabs at the sensibilities of those who are “behind the times”, they send a strong message to their target segment: “you are different”. Never mind that their target all wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, listen to the same music, experience the same ennui. These shared values define a coherent cohort.

It is a large, and growing, cohort. Big enough for D&G, Armani and quite a few others in the luxury good business. The core of the segment is best described as: psuedo-rebellious work-a-holics who satisfy their need to break norms by submitting themselves to fashion.
The foregoing description is completely unfair. It is obvious to the point of being hackneyed, and it is offensive to those who buy D&G and Armani, but it perhaps will help those who read this blog and buy from these companies to get the point. These companies do not respect you! The description of the cohort is D&G’s and Armani’s description of its customers, not mine.
The two companies and the two campaigns are not equally bad. The D&G ad is so obviously lame they should have been embarrassed to have thought of it. The actors in the photo are, at least, adults, though they should have known better.
The Armani ad is more complex and far more troubling. It is not immediately obvious that an “innocent” photo of two small children dress in expensive summer clothing is an invitation to sexual tourism. In fact, Armani continues, as I said earlier, to keep it on its website, and I have found no official response yet from the company. They obviously see nothing wrong.
This ought get us to wondering why Armani Junior does not get it. So here’s why. Armani Junior’s advertising fits in perfectly with the drive to get children to identify with brands earlier and earlier (Armani launched Armani Baby in 2006), and, more importantly, to get children to behave as adults earlier and earlier. You need not take my word on this: you can read any of the dozens of books lamenting children’s advertising, starting with Juliet Schor’s “Born to Buy”.
But not everyone selling to kids are bad guys. I am even willing to accept that most of them want to do the right thing and support CSR programs.
One of my favorite examples is Neopets, owned by MTV Networks, who has pioneered in “immersive advertising” (they have copyrighted the term); branded products are placed in a virtual game space and kids play educational and fun games to get points so that they buy fast food, sugar-coated cereals and other great stuff for their virtual pets. There are some 40 million users world-wide. In June 2005, MTV paid $160 million for the site to try to get kids plugged into their products as early as possible.
It works. And who am I to criticize? As much as I dislike “immersive advertising”, the advertisers love it. Moreover, Neopets is as socially responsible as you can get. Their website includes first-rate educational materials and does an outstanding job of helping parents monitor their kids use of internet and on-line games.
So why am I fuming? My friends and colleagues tell me that I get way too worked up over this stuff. But like the sentimentalist that I am, I keep asking what can we do to protect children. Which brings me back to the Armani Junior ad. It is easy to imagine a fair number of Moms and Dads leafing through the Armani Junior catalog to the precise photo that children’s groups have denounced. I can picture Mom and Dad looking at each other and crooning, “Aren’t those girls just so cute?”, and then calling out to their own lovely daughter, “Sweetheart, come on over here, we have this cute little outfit to show you.”
Perhaps it has not occured to these Moms and Dads that their children might be victims of their parents’ crass materialism. Perhaps it is not so important; after all these children have access to products and markets and education. For much of the rest of the worlds’ children, however, their options are much simpler: children in poverty, children as workers, children as prostitutes, children as soldiers. For the girls we can add: girls without schooling, girls as domestic slaves, girls suffering genital mutilation.
It is hard to imagine D&G or Armani Junior understanding the rhetorical path that I have used to associate their uncreative ad campaigns with rape and child abuse, but there is little I can do about that. What I would like to do is to invite Stefano Gabbana to my house to explain the ad to my 13 year old daughter who looked at it as if it were something she had seen a million times before, though when she saw the pained expression on my face she knew something was wrong, and I said, “This is really bad,” and she said, “I Know,” and I thought, it could get worse.
… And then I saw the Armani Junior ad.


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