By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
Edgy is Calvin Klein's middle name.
And now, once again, the fashion company is shocking and titillating passersby with a new ad campaign in New York City's Soho neighborhood, a place where young mothers with strollers mingle with artists and hipsters.
A giant 50-foot-tall billboard advertising Calvin Klein jeans features two young men and a young woman entangled half-clothed (a male and female kissing) as a third man lays at their feet, either undressing or putting his pants back on.
Some say they find the ad so outrageous they won't buy Calvin Klein products again. Others have called it "disgusting."
"Not only the billboard, but a company -- a corporate giant in America -- feels it appropriate to put a semi-nude photograph in a major billboard in a high-traffic area where tens of thousands of children see this kind of activity going on," said Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, a Christian organization that promotes preservation of traditional values.
"If it were going on in the back of a parking lot with steamed windows, they would be arrested, and yet they broadcast it to a whole city," he told ABCNews.com.
The organization has launched an appeal on its Web sites – twomillionmoms.org and twomilliondads.org, whose members have sent off more than 15,000 e-mail complaints to the company.
Tapping Into Cultural Outrage
Calvin Klein's in-house agency, CRK Advertising, has a history of tapping into that cultural outrage.
In 1981, a coquettish Brooke Shields told consumers, "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
And just last year, one of its ads starring Eva Mendes was banned because of the hint of a nipple.
Retail sales of products sold worldwide under the Calvin Klein brand names generated more than $5 billion in revenue in 2007. Its 55 licensing agreements for fragrances, handbags and even furniture bolster $156 million of those sales.
Calvin Klein Ads and Porn
Shields and actor Mark Wahlberg, who modeled male underwear, were the early poster children for the designer's haute couture line. Photography was shot by Bruce Weber, known for his equally sexualized work for Abercrombie & Fitch.
Consumers protested in 1995 when the company planned to air 30-second interviews with young men and women in front of cheap wood paneling as an unseen adult asked provocative questions about their physiques.
The ads were dropped after television stations refused to air them, and retailers threatened to drop the Calvin Klein label. The FBI even investigated the company for potential child pornography charges.
But the campaign didn't hurt the bottom line. In 2003, Calvin Klein was sold to Philip Van Heusen for more than $600 million. And that didn't even include the jeans line, which had been sold earlier to the Warnaco Group.
Calvin Klein Inc. did not return calls from ABCNews.com, but has earlier said its "intention was to create a very sexy campaign that speaks to our targeted demographic."
Some of those younger consumers are less judgmental about gender roles and have a more tolerant view of their sexuality, embracing gay marriage in larger numbers than their parents and, perhaps, seeing a threesome or even foursome as no big deal.
Many couldn't understand what all the "commotion" is about. One commenter on New York magazine's Web site declared, "All I can see are beautiful people having a good time…It's not the advertising that makes little children confused, it's the uptight handling with sex-related issues in general of their parents."
Even those who have never considered a ménage a trois (or more) don't seem shocked by the notion that more is merrier.
"I think that many younger people are OK with threes and fours, theoretically," said Lauren, a 28-year-old New York City teacher who did not want her last name used. "In college, many people engage in threesomes either with three friends, strangers or even their main partner and then a friend."
But some say Calvin Klein, whose earlier ads seem tame by comparison, has hit a cultural nerve.
"It's just porn from a guy who's done kiddie porn," said Bob Garfield, ad critic at Advertising Age and co-host of National Public Radio's, "On the Media." "If you pay attention to it, you're just doing his advertising for him."
Even the New York media -- accustomed to the bare midriffs that adorn Times Square -- has looked down its nose at the sexual implications of the four semi-nude models on the billboard.
"There's no such thing as a foursome," chided the Daily News. "Anything over three and it's called orgy."
Calvin Klein Genius
That remark, said Ashara Love, a 51-year-old who belongs to Loving More, a Colorado-based organization that promotes polyamory, reflects society's disapproval of more sexually free attitudes.
Polyamory is a "gender identity" not a lifestyle choice, according to Love, who said she does not use her birth name to protect her parents, who do not know she is "out."
"With cultural imperatives, the mainstream media frequently reinforces what you should think," said Love, who is happily married but engages in threesomes. "Hey guys, it's over there, pay no attention, it's just an orgy."
What critics are upset about, according to Love, is the unusual combination of one girl and three young men.
"Everything about our arts and culture is homoeroticism and denial," she told ABCNews.com. "What men are really afraid of is having sex with another guy. That's what's scaring people."
But Love and others, say the brilliance of Calvin Klein is his ability to tap into the next wave of shifting attitudes -- especially among those who buy their products.
Reaching Youth Where They Are Culturally
"He reaches young kids at a place where they are and opens them up even more," she said. "Everyone is really comfortable. They are having a good time, no wink, wink, nod, aren't we naughty for doing this. Everyone is completely in the moment and it's extremely confronting for people. It pushes the cultural input button."
But media observers say the issue is less about censorship and more about "media sanity" and what is age-appropriate.
"I can guarantee everyone below Houston Street [in Soho] is having a conversation with their children right now," said Liz Perle, editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides ratings for parents.
"It's just not age appropriate for kids who haven't even kissed a boy to be introduced to sophisticated, mature behavior," Perle told ABCNews.com. "They are not emotionally ready to deal with that yet."
Common Sense Media works with Time Warner, Best Buys and Netflix to help families "make better decisions."
"We are not negative Nellies," she said.
That Calvin Klein billboard -- towering over a community that is now more child-friendly -- is a reminder that the age of the Internet has changed a child's perception of the world and "normalizes" highly sexualized content.
"Childhood used to be about a system of revealed secrets that are learned when they are ready to handle them," said Perle. "Our society is so desensitized that we have in-your-face violence and in-your-face sexuality."
"Here [in the billboard ad] are these beautiful people engaged in activities that are not age-appropriate for kids."
Source: ABC News.