Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Abortion in Advertising

I read a ridiculously high number of fashion magazines for someone that doesn’t wear makeup and considers a new pair of Levi’s a major splurge. But what caught my eye while flipping through the latest batch of glossies was the advertisement for Kenneth Cole that appears to the right of this post.

Ads seeking to make a social or political statement are nothing new. In the 1980s and 1990s, the clothing company Benetton used striking and often controversial images in its advertisements. From the famous image of AIDS activist David Kirby on his deathbed surrounded by family; to a picture of a white child, hair in blond ringlets, grinning next to a black child, hair in devil’s horns; to an array of multi-colored condoms, Benetton made a point of tackling the hot-button social issues of those decades.

Though Kenneth Cole’s new abortion-themed ad is part of the company’s recently launchedWhere Do You Stand” campaign, which also addresses gun control, gay marriage, and war, this isn’t the first time that the fashion company has combined advertising with social awareness. A handbag ad from 1997 includes the words “It is a woman’s right to choose. After all, she’s the one carrying it”; other ads from that decade focused on AIDS, homelessness and, perhaps most amusingly, Dan Quayle.

Like the Benetton ads, those earlier Kenneth Cole campaigns met with their fair share of controversy. The Where Do You Stand campaign has also drawn criticism, with detractors charging that combining social commentary with fashion trivializes the issues that Cole is highlighting.

While I can understand that viewpoint, I have to respectfully disagree. Those Benetton ads that I mentioned above were ones that I saw almost twenty years ago, yet they remain fresh in my mind today. I wasn’t even that familiar with Benetton’s clothes, but I was intrigued that there were full-page ads in Rolling Stone and other mainstream magazines that showed such stark, beautiful, and daring images. As Spike Lee wrote in a 1992 essay about Benetton, “If it’s provocative enough, it might make people sit down and discuss it, talk about the message.” Those ads certainly made me think about the issues they illustrated, and I was far from the only one affected. Likewise, the “abortion” page of Where Do You Stand’s website is full of diverse opinions about abortion and a woman’s right to choose.

Then again, I’m of the opinion that any chance to bring abortion into everyday conversation is a good one – even if the conversation revolves around figuring out why an ad for shoes is talking about abortion. We live in a society that shies away from talking about abortion in movies and on television; we have prominent politicians that are eager to strip funding from Planned Parenthood. If Kenneth Cole can help normalize discussions about abortion rights and their precarious place in our society, then I’m all for it.

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