Selling with Sex
Sex is a potent tool for advertisers, as Bob Carlos Clarke can testify.
He tells Terry Hope about some of the campaigns that he's been asked to tackle over the years
Pinning Bob Carlos Clarke down is no easy task, and that's the way he likes it. He's been wily enough over the years to avoid the straitjacket of the pigeonhole, leaving him free to apply himself to many different areas of photography, a fact that, during some of the leaner times, has proved to be something of a lifesaver.
"Since I have a big studio to support and I'm not a US legend earning a US legend's salary," he says, "I've had to become a photographer who can survive by doing a little of everything, from cars through to fashion, editorial and advertising work. Becoming known for just one thing was far too dangerous: those who have a reputation for being fashion photographers, for example, inevitably run the risk of moving in and out of fashion themselves."
Despite remaining a moving target, however, Carlos Clarke has still suffered from the vagaries of taste and, as someone so associated with the portrayal of sex and high-class erotica, it was inevitable that his commercial worth would fluctuate in tune with the perceived morality of different times.
This proved particularly to be the case where advertising was
concerned: while there was a period in the 1960s and 70s where several high-profile campaigns had used sex, often quite crudely, as a selling tool, by the time Carlos Clarke was established and looking for an involvement with the advertising world himself, the backlash had set in and political correctness had come to town. Few agencies were willing to take chances with the kind of imagery that he was associated with and he found himself struggling to make his mark in this area.
"In the early 1980s I set off to make my fortune in Los Angeles," he says. "I flew, with a folio stuffed with naked females, into a city in the grip of heterophobia. My first meeting was with the editor of a poster and greetings-card publisher, who was a perfect clone of the leather queen from the Village People. He looked up and said 'Nice shots, wrong sex,' and accompanied it with a barely disguised shudder of disgust."
Returning to London Carlos Clarke realised that this was not destined to be a one-off incident. The gay scene was coming out of the shadows and gaining acceptance while, at the same time, there was a groundswell of opinion that saw the female nude as 'exploitative,' and something to be frowned upon. For a photographer who had acquired his early reputation on the back of books such as Obsession (1981) and The Dark Summer (1985), both of which contained images that explored the outer edges of the fetishist scene, the timing could hardly have been worse.
Carlos Clarke's agent recommended taking some of what he described as the 'tits and arse' photographs out of the portfolio, while an attempt to impress advertising agencies by photographing men in an erotic style was predictably doomed to failure through simple lack of enthusiasm on Carlos Clarke's behalf. Other avenues kept him busy while the advertising work largely passed him by, and things stayed this way until the pendulum inevitably swung back, and it started to become acceptable once more to feature sexually provocative women in advertisements.
"The first sign that I got that things were moving again was when a picture of mine called 'Faithful Unto Death,' which featured a young 'widow' sobbing on the steps of a mausoleum in Putney Vale cemetery, was bought for use in an advertisement by the Leicester & Alliance Building Society in the late 1980s," says Carlos Clarke. "The picture, which had been used in The Dark Summer, was taken on an autumn day when the light was fading, and my model was cold and unhappy in a skin-tight rubber dress. That morning her lover had cancelled their wedding and she didn't want to be photographed. When I asked her what she wanted to do she said 'Cry!,' and so I handed her a tissue and she did just that."
It was a striking picture and it was deemed to fit the building society's brief for an image that depicted loss, although some of those who saw the full-page advertisement that resulted were less than impressed. "There was a flood of complaints," says Carlos Clarke. "I particularly liked the one that said 'I am appalled by your gratuitous use of a high-heeled rubber-clad 'lady' more suited to publications of a Continental nature than to a previously reputable financial institution.' Happily the model soon won a replacement husband - and a small fortune for the use of the picture in the campaign - and I quickly got engaged to the magic of moral outrage."
Far from proving to be a setback, the experience served to demonstrate just how potent a suggestion of sexuality could prove to be, a fact that was not lost on agencies constantly looking for ideas to put to their clients. A reaction, even one that seems extreme, is better than no reaction at all, and 'Faithful Unto Death' had fulfilled its role admirably. With the advent of lad's magazines' such as Loaded, completing the comeback of the heterosexual male, other advertising jobs started finding their way to Carlos Clarke, all of them without exception making use of his confident and relaxed way of photographing women.
Some of the jobs took Carlos Clarke into new territory, such as the 'Dress to Kill' campaign for Wallace for BBH, which subsequently went on to win several major awards. Here the requirement was not just to make women appear sexy and alluring, but also to involve them in an act of storytelling, the pay-off for the ads being the premise that the models looked so good in Wallace clothing that men were likely to become distracted and accident-prone as a result. "I was not accustomed to taking pictures that were set up to that degree," says Carlos Clarke, "and it was a challenge for me. There was humour involved and I had to put this across and also to retain a feeling of spontaneity, even though the situations that I was photographing were totally contrived."
While the Wallace series proved to be highly successful, Carlos Clarke was facing a challenge of a different kind, which had nothing whatsoever to do with his expertise behind the camera. Increasingly it was becoming obvious to him that some of the more cutting edge agencies were writing him off because of his age, with the consequence that he was missing out on many of the most lucrative and exciting campaigns.
The point was brought home to him graphically when a friend presented his nightclub series - a set of paparazzi-style black and white pictures of club goers shedding their inhibitions in the early hours - to an editor of a radical new title. The pictures were immediately scheduled but, having subsequently learned the identity of the photographer, the editor then decided that the Carlos Clarke name didn't fit the 'ethos' of the publication, and asked if the pictures could be used without a credit.
"It was a perfect example of my worst suspicions," says Carlos Clarke.
"At every level this business is riddled with bullshit and bigotry, and I reckoned that the only way I could tackle it was to turn its weaknesses to my advantage. So I changed my identity and began working under the pseudonym 'Jackal.'"
The first assignment for this cool new persona came early last year, and was an editorial shoot to photograph lap dancers at the Spearmint Rhino club for Front magazine, a Loaded-clone, and the day it was published Carlos Clarke received a call at his studio from a young multimedia company asking for his pseudonym's portfolio. "Momentarily forgetting my edgy new identity I thought that they had got the wrong number," he says, "but they hadn't and, although they looked somewhat surprised to see someone of my advanced years walk in when I went to see them, Jackal got the job."
A campaign for Urban Stone was the result, and the theme revolved around three models, one male and two female, engaging in erotic antics that were designed to push back the boundaries of what, to date, had been considered acceptable in an advertising sense. "I wanted to use people who were either friends of mine or were people that we could find on the street," says Carlos Clarke, "but the client was insistent that we use models.
"Although we did our best, the pictures looked set up and lacked the intense realism required to make the whole thing appear believable. We had spent two days getting to this point, and I said to the client that we had spent a lot of money and perhaps we should give my idea a try.
So we ditched the entire shoot, and I re-cast using a glamour girl, a club dancer and a handsome young guy who we found on a west end street.
"On the morning of the shoot my three new performers arrived looking wasted to perfection. One girl had been out drinking all night, the other had been brawling with her lover and had fluorescent bruises to prove it and the guy was completely wiped out from an all-night session as a podium-dancer. We shot five ads over the next two days and it was so easy because the three of them knew exactly what to do. It's probably the best and most successful advertising series that I've done."
To echo the feel of his club series, Carlos Clarke worked with simple lighting - an on-camera flash to accompany his hand-held Pentax 645 and an overhead light covered with a blue gel to suggest a club atmosphere
- and the set was kept as informal and as intimate as possible. "I find that the more you try to stage-manage a situation the more artificial it tends to look," says Carlos Clarke. "We started shooting at 10.30 am in a club in the west end, and everyone involved thought that it was too early to start sex.
"Things didn't start getting interesting until after lunch, and my role was to move around and occasionally to offer them direction. I just told them the effect that I wanted to create and then tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible. My feeling is that you can create nothing that's more interesting than reality.
"The Urban Stone shoot helped me to generate some very useful attention, and it was good to be involved in a campaign that broke new ground in this way. Once again it emphasised the value of shock because all the tabloids wanted to use the shots to run with their story that asked 'Are these the most explicit ads ever?' The double-page spreads that resulted were probably worth around £100,000 a time in terms of exposure and the client was overjoyed.
"The problem with shock, however, is that you need to continually push out the edges and, in the same way that an addict will require higher and higher doses of heroin to maintain the same high, you need to go further and further with your shock tactics to generate the same level of excitement."
Since Urban Stone further high profile campaigns have come the way of Carlos Clarke that, while not as strong in terms of their sexual content, have still marked an important change of attitude from some of the country's biggest advertisers. Lever Brothers for example, the notoriously conservative manufacturer of products such as Persil, commissioned a series that depicted beautiful women walking the streets minus their skirts. "There is something startlingly erotic about a well-appointed fully-dressed woman exhibiting her pristine cotton undergarments," says Carlos Clarke, "but the focus of agency/client anxiety was the height of the models' heels. The dawning realisation that the campaign might promote a subliminal association between Persil and prostitution completely ruined their lunch break."
Perhaps even more surprising, however, was another commission that came towards the end of last year. "After September 11, along with most other photographers, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I would never work again," says Carlos Clarke. "By a strange twist of fate the first job that came to me after that was from Cantor Fitzgerald, who obviously had lost hundreds of their staff in the twin towers. They were looking to create a series of advertisements that were up tempo and mildly controversial in the context of the media that they were intended for, and that showed just how acceptable the idea of sex within advertising has now become."
The fact is that advertising is designed to reflect the audience that it is aimed at along with the editorial pages that will ultimately surround it, and in each area something that is considered daring and exciting will doubtless fail to hit the mark if transferred to a different environment. Now, however, sex is becoming a potent selling tool once again right across the spectrum, with the consequence that those who are masters of the erotic art, which Bob Carlos Clarke most certainly is, are firmly back in favour from the advertiser's point of view.