An advert for the men’s fashion brand Suitsupply, featuring models in an orgy setting, kissing open-mouthed with tongues, has created anger online.
The tagline of the advert – “The new normal is coming” – nods to the end of the pandemic and the bacchanalian promise of a post-Covid era that some analysts have called “the roaring 20s”.
One commenter on Suitsupply’s Instagram page asked: “How does this sell suits?” while another wrote: “Stick to what you’re good at. An attempt at woke marketing is definitely not it.”
However, the company’s CEO and founder, Fokke de Jong, has defended the advert, telling the Guardian: “Post-pandemic life is on the horizon. Social distancing for extraordinary long periods of time has conditioned us to fear [the] proximity of others. The campaign is simply a positive outlook on our future where people can get back to gathering and getting close.”
The chatter seems to have worked: according to digitaloft.co.uk, searches for the brand have increased by 41% in the week since the advert launched online. But for many the campaign feels like too much, too soon.
“The extreme closeups of the models who are not masked and have visible tongues in some instances are likely meant to have potential customers thinking about shopping at Suitsupply,” says Adrianne Pasquarelli, a senior reporter at Ad Age, “[but] the fact that we are not yet, or even nearly yet, at that post-pandemic period makes the ads even more controversial. Millions are still waiting for vaccinations as we hit the one-year mark.”
The physical proximity of the models in the advert is part of a broader trend, with the likes of Jacquemus, Diesel and Paco Rabanne all using images recently of couples in passionate clinches.
“Rather than being hot and heaving for the sake of it, there’s suddenly a social component to these ads that doubles as commentary on people’s longing for human touch,” says Mario Abad, the fashion editor at Paper.
Of course, shock advertising is not a new phenomenon. “Explicit fashion adverts can be traced back to 1980, when Calvin Klein marketed his jeans using a 15-year-old Brooke Shields,” says Prof Andrew Groves, the director of the fashion design course at the University of Westminster. “The more designers like Klein diffused their brand name into secondary, mass-market lines, the more they relied on controversial advertising to reach a wider consumer audience.”
Groves says that Klein’s ads became more explicit as time went on, “reaching a nadir in 1995 with a TV commercial that seemed to be a screen test for a low-budget film. The audience’s viewpoint [was] that of the director behind the camera, so we are complicit as he asks the models about their bodies or tells them to take their clothes off. It’s easy to see why it was pulled.” BuzzFeed has described it as “just too creepy”.
One progressive aspect of the latest adverts is that they feature same-sex couplings. Abad says this is a bid to attract the attention of the generation Z customer. “Centring on same-sex couples [to the point] where it becomes the norm, rather than as one-off stunts, will go a long way in building the kind of authenticity brands preach about so much,” he says.
With sales of suits having fallen dramatically as a result of people working from home, the Suitsupply advert may be an attempt to reboot an ailing market. Last year, the US company Tailored Brands, which controls the suit retailers Men’s Wearhouse and Jos A Bank, filed for bankruptcy.
“Showing something provocative, like an orgy, helps build buzz among consumers at a time when sales of suits are on the wane,” says Pasquarelli. “In pre-pandemic times, showing an apparent orgy would get people talking; now, when many are still social distancing and trying to keep their germs to themselves, an orgy is all the more shocking. That shock can translate into brand awareness.”
However, Groves believe it won’t turn into sales. “Suitsupply’s problem is that, whatever the ‘new normal’ might be, it won’t include a return to either orgies or wearing suits any time soon.”