Plastered on the side of a concrete building somewhere in New York City, fashion brand Calvin Klein ran this billboard in 2006. The concept of their ad campaign is simple enough: prominent figures in music, fashion, Hollywood and celebrity pose in Calvin Klein merchandise and work with the brand to fill in the blank, “I ______ in #mycalvins” as a way to inject symbolic meaning into wearing Calvin Klein clothing that goes beyond the physical aesthetic of the clothing itself. Fashion brands do this all the time – they run advertisements meant to evoke a certain kind of feeling (as well as social status and cultural capital) that they want associated with their clothing; that when a person wears their brand they are claiming association to what the brand represents and symbolizes, as an extension of who they are as a person.
The issues with this particular billboard are varied and complex. In this case, Calvin Klein has deliberately placed two of their advertisements comparatively side-by-side. These advertisements already stand-alone in perpetuating harmful stereotypes in pop culture and media that both insidiously and overtly affect consumer identity, consumption and capitalist ethos. Women are ceaselessly sexually objectified by the media, and Klara Kristin’s advertisement portrays a woman who is projecting that objectification from within herself, with the statement: “I seduce in #mycalvins”. An argument could certainly be made that she is a woman asserting her sexuality and finding power within her divine femininity; but the word “seduce” is important to note here, as it implicitly invites the male gaze. The effect of the advertisement is not lost on me: I see a woman being reduced to objectified and depersonalized sexuality to sell a product. As they say, sex sells.
On the right side of the billboard, we see an image of Fetty Wap, a black male rapper underlain with the statement, “I make money in #mycalvins”. There are many underlying, interlocking messages in this advertisement, that interlopes gender and race most prominently. The common trope of the male breadwinner. The implicit suggestion that to be a successful black man means one must be a rapper or an NBA basketball player. A black man being reduced to being seen as worthy or valued based on how much money he makes. This and so much more, compounds into an expression of hegemonic masculinity.
There are clearly harmful stereotypes being presented in these advertisements as stand-alone, separate entities. Yet when these advertisements are considered as two parts of a bigger whole, the combined effect of this framing compounds and exacerbates sexist, patriarchal, dominant and hegemonic values as perpetuated by mass media. The narrative couldn’t be clearer: women seduce and men make money. The juxtaposition of a white woman and a black man also interlopes race into the polarizing billboard – it seems to almost caricature the dichotomy of white woman sexuality and purity (note: Klara Kristin in an all-white ensemble) and the impasse of looking beyond a black man’s hustle.
I wanted to reveal the absurdity of the original billboard by seeing what would happen if I switched the messages between the two advertisements. My jamming philosophy turned out to be grounded in using satire as a tool for social critique of the original advertisement. I was curious: what would happen if I flipped the narrative on its head? Would it reveal an inconvenient truth about how media and advertisement perpetuates certain dominant, hegemonic interests? Would the jammed version be just as problematic as the original advertisement? I wanted to subvert the original social message but I also wanted to see if reversing the message would shed an ugly light on certain societal attitudes surrounding white women and black men, given the context of Klara Kristin and Fetty Wap symbolically performing white femininity and black masculinity in these advertisements. To make more explicit the satirical intentions of the jammed advertisement, I included the social location of the two models – their race and gender – as their positionality in juxtaposition to each other highlights some of the uncomfortable nuances of whiteness versus blackness; femininity versus masculinity.
The effect of my jammed advertisement makes me deeply uncomfortable, and I think it is because it insidiously highlights the hypocrisy of gendered and racialized media messages. If you flip sexism and hegemonic masculinity on its head, and screw it onto another body, what you get is a subverted version of the same beast in different form. A woman publicly stating that she “make[s] money in #[her]calvins” is stigmatized and rather taboo in Western society, at least in relation to the normalization of men asserting the same exact thing. How often have we heard some rendition of, “women shouldn’t be concerned with matters of finance”? Additionally, the jammed version of Klara Kristin’s advertisement may allude to white feminism inadvertently, in so much as white feminism is largely concerned with equal pay and the economic advancement and liberation of (white) women. The combination between advertisement for a semi-high brow fashion brand, the presentation of white femininity, and the assertion of “making money” suggests that this jammed advertisement is actually making a reference to hegemonic feminism.
Fetty Wap, on the other hand, is jammed into a different social position all together. “I seduce in #mycalvins” takes on a whole new meaning when it is associated with a black man, as opposed to a white woman. I am viscerally reminded of the incredibly injurious stereotype of black men as sexually virile and aggressive, which finds its roots hundreds of years back to American slavery. The jammed advertisement exposes the inter-generational and collective trauma of this kind of oppressive construction of black men by dominant interests. Alternatively, it may also allude to the explicit embodiment of sexuality and sex in modern hip hop, and this jammed advertisement can be seen as a reference to Fetty Wap “seducing” people through his music. It’s so important to note that even with this interpretation, the subject is not the objectification of Fetty Wap’s body (which was so clearly the case with the original advertisement of Klara Kristin), but of his music.
The hypocrisy, absurdity, and harm of gendered and racialized advertisements are clear in the narrative(s) that are presented in these original and jammed advertisements, with the added complexity of how they interplay with one another. Advertisements influence the way consumers navigate the world and construct their own identities. My hope is that with this critical analysis of the original and jammed versions, we are more conscious and critical of the ways in which we are exposed to the social messages hidden in advertisement and media.