As the world recovers from the salacious images of Jeremy Allen White’s now famous Calvin Klein Spring 2024 underwear campaign, LUXUO takes a moment to delve into the marketing magic (and madness) behind the hype. Calvin Klein had all the ingredients for a successful campaign. Firstly, in accurately casting the fresh-faced 32-year-old lead actor from the hit television show, The Bear who balances non-threatening masculinity with an effortless, nuanced sexuality. Secondly, rather than the signature black and white studio visuals fans have become accustomed to seeing, this campaign features Allen White reclining on a red sofa (which was recently announced to be available for free on Facebook Marketplace before the listing was subsequently closed due to an avalanche of bids) in a public rooftop setting against the New York City skyline. The proof is in the numbers. According to Launchmetrics, the campaign to date has generated approximately USD 12.7 million in media exposure for the brand within its first 48 hours. Calvin Klein’s post on Instagram has already reached 1.4 million likes.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Imagination
As one of the leading figures in fashion, the late Diana Vreeland once said “the eye has to travel”. While Vreeland was referring to “the eye of the reader travelling across the pages of a magazine and into a journey of the imagination”, her statement holds true — campaigns are about creating a fantasy and capturing the imagination.
Part of the success behind the Calvin Klein campaigns is not necessarily because of the star power or the caliber of the actor, but rather the actor’s “burgeoning” appeal. The recent Calvin Klein campaign follows suit in previous campaigns that had their fair share of social media success (featuring the likes of Noah Centineo, Jacob Elordi and Shawn Mendes). Elordi, Centineo and Allen White are actors who are still on the rise and therefore much is to be known about them as opposed to seasoned celebrities. Take for instance the likes of David Beckham or Justin Bieber who may both deliver successful campaigns, there is little room to play in terms of the visual narrative aside from looking at them as purely sexual beings. However, Jeremy Allen White was precisely the right person to front the campaign because a lot is still to be known about Allen White and so the mystery and ambiguity of his hidden offscreen persona works in his favour.
When it comes to casting the correct face, the mystery and anonymity allows viewers to mould who we see on-screen to fit the (perhaps subconscious) sexual narrative we have in our minds. This is what brands want consumers to buy into — something that goes well beyond the cotton brief and branded waistband. In 2013, it was reported that David Beckham was nearly featured in a Calvin Klein campaign alongside Natalia Vodianova. However, according to Calvin Klein, Beckham’s people said “you can’t have the UK because he’s too popular” resulting in the campaign proceeding with footballer Freddie Ljungberg instead — exemplifying how the star power of a celebrity can either hinder or help a campaign.
In the case of Beckham, his team didn’t approve while if one recalls Justin Bieber’s 2015 campaign alongside Lara Stone, Bieber used it as an opportunity to launch his new “mature” image. Bieber’s campaign was however met with mixed reviews as rumours of the photos being digitally enhanced (bulge and muscle definition) overshadowed the potential positive press he was perhaps hoping for. Bieber’s Calvin Klein campaign was so infamous it was parodied by Kate McKinnon on SNL (Saturday Night Live).
Despite the conservative climate in most Asian countries, regional personalities are also tapped to front Calvin Klein campaigns. Brands like Calvin Klein understand that celebrities the likes of Bright Vachirawit, BTS’ Jungkook, Tae Jun, Gemini, Sung Jin Park and Tarzzan Lee (to name a few) come with a legion of loyal followers who not only showcase their love with likes and follows but with their wallets as well. In an interview with The Drum, Calvin Klein’s global chief marketing officer Jonathon Bottomley spoke on the brand’s marketing strategy — stating he aimed to create entertaining campaigns that “cut through” users scrolling through their phones by using cultural brand ambassadors. He also explained using this engagement to drive full-funnel marketing before ultimately delivering a “precise” targeting strategy aimed at directing customers to a purchase.
With regard to BTS’ Jung Kook as global brand ambassador of Calvin Klein, global chief marketing officer Jonathan Bottomley said, “We pride ourselves on identifying globally relevant talent whose cultural impact and values align with our own. Jung Kook is one of the world’s most popular artists, he possesses a rare ability to connect with international audiences through both his music and his style. We’re fortunate and excited to have him join the Calvin Klein team.” As Bottomley states, its part of the strategy in using prominent Korean and Thai celebrities is to engage with international audiences and tap into their large fanbase.
The Male Vs Female Gaze
It is clear that sexual liberation and empowerment works differently for men and women. Seeing Jeremy Allen White in his underwear is more likely to elicit the reaction that “men want to be him, women want to be with him” and the lack of similar sentiments for a female-led campaign speaks to how this rule does not necessarily apply to women. Case in point FKA Twigs’ Calvin Klein campaign was banned in the United Kingdom by the Advertising Standards Authority under the grounds that the artist is depicted as a “stereotypical sexual object”. In response, Twigs took to Instagram calling out the industry’s “double standards” saying “I do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. I see a beautiful strong woman of colour whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine”.
This calls into question who exactly holds the power with regard to the sexual gaze. With male models, viewers are clued in to a secret life where the man’s sexual prowess is on display. However when it is a female model, the gaze is “happening” upon her, almost nonconsensually where she isn’t the master of her own sexuality but rather she is caught in the moment of a private or shameful act. While Allen White’s campaign is met with rave reviews, FKA Twigs’ is banned, highlighting the contrast and further showcasing the agency women have over their own bodies and how it is perceived visually. This is evidenced in then 23-year-old Danish model Klara Kristin’s 2016 Calvin Klein “I flash in #mycalvins” campaign featuring Kristin in a controversial upskirt shot. Despite the heated climate we live in, in a world of inclusion beyond the one-sided depiction of beauty as seen on the likes of the Victoria Secret Fashion Show for instance, female sexuality still has a hard time balancing desire with objectification. Or perhaps we as a society are more accepting of the objectification of men?
The Se”X” Factor
In 1981, a young Brooke Sheilds said “nothing gets between me and my Calvins”, alluding to the idea that she was not wearing any underwear. But sex aside, what exactly is Calvin Klein’s secret formula? Versace, Tom Ford, Dsquared2 and Moschino have all unveiled their own underwear lines, each their own level of acclaim but they don’t reach the same salacious notoriety as Calvin Klein. While bum cleavage is a rare thrilling moment on the runway, it is not a strong-enough narrative for a brand. The internet is already saturated with gorgeous faces in their underwear.
What cuts through the noise is the brand. Solid branding goes a long way in selling the desire while also simultaneously being able to hone in on selecting faces who are at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. Timing is key. Calvin Klein understands the power of capturing celebrities while they are at a pinnacle point in their career, be it the precipice of stardom or the start of a new chapter showcasing the brand’s understanding of “the now”. They are known to have the midas touch when selecting pop culture figures for their ambassadors since the brand’s inception in 1968 and this is the secret formula that will see them be the purveyor of underwear branding in the years to come.
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