Can You Tell If This Is a Fashion Shoot or Porn?

A new game highlights the decreasing gap between sex and ads.

BY KATE HAKALA

If we can’t readily distinguish the two, are porn and fashion really that different? 

That's the question posed by the new game, "Fashion or Porn?", which was released yesterday by Italian-based magazine, nssMag. The NSFW Appgame “Fashion or Porn?” tests its players with what we assume is a brainless question. The object of the game is simple: Look at a cropped selection of a photograph and choose whether the photo has been lifted from a fashion spread or pornography. The game, surprisingly, proved not too easy. I, who view pornographic images for work daily, scored embarrassingly low on my first attempts at playing (13 out of 40 was my highest score.) I confused fashion for porn and porn for fashion in almost equal measure. It often felt as if the photos were trick questions.

I’d like to think nssMag’s game reveals more about the fashion industry’s proficiency for culling a sexualized aesthetic than it does my own daft skills of determination. For every explicit or nude photo that revealed itself to be a fashion campaign, was a well-lit glamor picture — airbrushed, curated, and modeled — that turned out to be a graphic penetration porn shot.

 

Screenshot of "Fashion or Porn?" game. Portrayed with backs arched, legs splayed, and mouths agape, the women of both porn and fashion appear ready for consumption in the visual medium. 

If we were using Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 threshold test for obscenity — “I know it when I see it” — then both I and the fashion spreads featured in the game failed miserably. I explicitly did not know it when I saw it. But this artistic and thematic liminality in fashion advertising persists because, in most respects, it’s remained profitable.

Of course, the fashion industry is one that predicates itself upon its alignment with sex appeal. Fashion is sold, not merely as a utilitarian product, but as one of adornment and attraction. And today’s fashion advertising is overrun by photographers and directors, like the maligned millionaire photographer Terry Richardson, whose entire aesthetic relies upon the pornified objectification of women. These women are often extremely young, if you can recall from the already forgotten Miley Cyrus photoshoot scandal of October. Whether the consumption of these images is inherently economic or sexual remains blurred when the images presented in fashion and porn are becoming increasingly homogenized: hairless, white, poreless, and nude.

To what effect does this pervasive ploy sell? A recent study conducted by Psychological Science found that women, in fact, don’t respond well to hypersexualized advertising when products are sold cheap. However, emotional responses to sexy ads were just fine when the same products were priced expensively. Sexual economics theory explains the findings with its prediction that women want to to perceive sex as rare and special. The results of the study uncover deeply instilled values about how women believe sex should be presented, understood, and exchanged. However, men in the study did not share similarly economized views of sexual advertising. Sex sold for men, and it didn’t matter what product worth it was tacked onto.

But just because sexualized products for luxury goods are not usually an affront to female demographics doesn’t indicate it’s what women prefer to see in their ads. Women don’t buy products that come packaged beside disembodied parts, nude torsos, magnified crotches, and exaggerated posing because this marketing speaks to women’s sensibilities in general; women buy sexually advertised products because they ubiquitously crowd the market. It makes sense to then ask who are these fashion spreads geared towards, if not the overwhelming demographic that supports them? Women account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases, a crushing $7 trillion consumer spending in the United States alone. My first answer is, simply: I don’t know. My second is that dissatisfaction always sells. Markets run on the desire for betterment and what more enticing a vehicle than our vulnerable sense of sexual worth?

In late November, Caryn Franklin, ex-host of BBC’s The Clothes Show wrote an op-ed in the Daily Mail lamenting the state of fashion. “Fashion is becoming a branch of the porn industry,” she wrote. She concluded that this melding of porn and fashion would ultimately shape the next generation into an airbrushed, distorted, and waxed standard of oversexualized youth. Her thesis was that we should buy clothes because they make us feel confident and sexy, not because they are sex.

American Apparel ads, which reach a wide and youthful audience, have been one of the largest offenders of adopting the porn aesthetic. The low-fi quality of their ads’ photographs and centerfold spreads are reminiscent of smutty mags. In the "Fashion or Porn?" game, it was actually American Apparel ads that most frequently tripped me up. Just this year, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, a self-regulated watchdog, attempted to ban sexually explicit AA ads.

But American Apparel is hardly the only company to proliferate the porno-chic norm. Tom Ford’s 2006 sunglasses ads featuring porn stars as models, Sophie Dahl's YSL perfume ad, and GQ's fashion porn video, "Mine", are a few campaigns that come to mind that pushed the envelope and fired up the censors.

This morning, Forbes published an essay about sex and fashion in which Kim Winser argues there is nothing wrong with sex in advertising as long as it stays sexy and not crude. But it's uncertain where that fine line is drawn. If sex ads excite our brains to make us buy impulsively, then does the intensity of the sexual representation really matter?

The "Fashion or Porn?" game doesn’t offer any suggestions regarding how to redress the representations of sexuality in fashion, but its mere presence on an indie fashion blog is enough to indicate that deeper questions about porn in fashion are coming to light. Questions like, “Why are these crotch shots selling my cable knit sweater?”, which may seem silly and absurd on the surface, until we realize we don’t have an answer.

Image via Flickr.

Commentarium

comments powered by Disqus