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Media Critique

Kenneth Cole's Pretty Politics

Illustration by Ruchika Gandotra

According to hip clothing designer Kenneth Cole, "What we stand for is more important than what we stand in." This timely sound bite was present on his Michigan Avenue storefront window soon after September 11. I suppose that national solidarity is more important than knowing the country of origin of one's clothing. Just mere days before the worst instance of terrorism on U.S. soil, Kenneth Cole's latest print ad ran in the Sunday Chicago Tribune. The ad caught my attention because the pale, greasy haired models suffering in scenes with politically charged undertones was so different from the worldly ignorant, tanning booth-fresh models tiptoeing though the tulips that I usually find in newspaper ads. In the several page ad I found witty political zingers such as a street post with one sign reading Bush St. and the other Cheney Ave. with a "dead end" sign underneath. I was also rewarded with details such as a green recycling bin in front of a ranch house that read, "Not recycling? That's just garbage." Cole also comments on Starbucks-dependent suburbia.

On a wood sign with a Kenneth Cole briefcase propped up in front of it the viewer is welcomed to "Any Town, USA (Over 98% over-caffeinated, . . . population 19,421)." When Ifirst observed this ad, I was intrigued by the marketing approach employed by Kenneth Cole (who writes all of his advertising slogans). Surely his yuppie demographic guzzles coffee and, although there may be a few environmentally conscious people, most of his customers don't recycle their coffee containers. Although the ad didn't persuade me to buy any of his products, it captivated me enough to save it for future enjoyment. So imagine my disappointment in Kenneth Cole when, a few Sundays ago, I found his new ad in my Chicago Tribune. Gone are the gritty images that make his fashions dirty-sexy, and absent were the smart political criticisms. Instead, I found lazy models in seemingly valium-induced states of inactivity accompanied by slogans better fitted for a Hallmark card. On one page a model is lounging on a leather armchair, holding a cordless phone while staring off into space. A Kenneth Cole purse is featured in the foreground and the viewer is provided with a clear view of her shoes. The text above her reads "On September 12 people who don't speak to their parents forgot why." On the next page a male model is napping in front of a leather couch occupied by a dog. The young man looks quite comfortable in his vertical striped cardigan ($98), striped dress shirt ($49.50) and flat front cotton pant ($69). This serene scene is narrated by "On September 12 fewer men spent the night on the couch." However, one page offered something worth thinking about. The reader learns "On September 12, 14,000 people still contracted HIV." The couple embracing on the same page seems appropriate. But one has to wonder at the image of a woman lying across her dining table eating strawberries in a $200 outfit with the text "Today is not a dress rehearsal" superimposed over it.

If you're going to try to sell me a $200 dress that cost $20 to manufacture in China, skip the politically savvy facade. Former talk show host Kathie Lee's smiling face on her sweatshop quality WalMart clothing line tags make me question the state of the union much more than a bunch of bored models lounging around with nothing but time on their hands (maybe they got laid off because of the recession). My challenge to Kenneth Cole: incorporate the fact that your clothing is made predominantly in China and Korea into your ads. Do something akin to "On September 12, 14,000 people still contracted HIV" like "On September 12, we still paid our workers much less than what is needed for a decent standard of living."

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