Sexually gyrating on a mechanical bull; a menage-a-trois with zombies in lingerie; and a procession of scantily-clad models in the middle of the desert. These are just some of Agent Provocateur’s ad campaigns that have been banned in recent years.
As a brand, you know you’re doing something right when you get more media coverage than your competitors. Any attention is good attention, after all.
This is what sets Agent Provocateur apart from the rest — they unapologetically push the boundaries in an industry that begs to be provoked, while at the same time empowering women to embrace (or flaunt) their sexuality.
Founded in 1994 by maverick Joe Corre, the brand seemed destined for greatness. Corre, a social activist and son of Dame Vivienne Westwood and music manager Malcom McLaren, teamed up with then-wife Serena Rees to create a lingerie brand that was like no other. It is fair to say they delivered on this promise. Agent Provocateur now has more than 200 employees worldwide in more than 10 countries and turns over more than USD $115 million.
For these reasons, the team at Fashion Industry Broadcast thought it was worth taking a look at Agent Provocateur’s history of provocative ad campaigns.
Proof — featuring Kylie Minogue (2001)
A poll conducted by DCM voted Proof the best ever cinema ad, while pundits have lauded Agent Provocateur’s tenacity to film such a raunchily inspiring advertisement.
The advertisement is simple. It features Kylie Minogue feigning an orgasm as she sexually gyrates on a mechanical bull. As the intensity of the bull climaxes, so too does Minogue. You cannot help but applaud Agent Provocateur. The ad incorporates a number of ideas everyone can relate to — a famous actress in Minogue; a mechanical bull that everyone will try to ride least once in their life; and the sexual theme that intensifies a la coitus, which keeps viewers interested.
Upon release, the ad was taken off the air because of its adult themes, restricted to being shown in cinemas. While this seems counter-intuitive to the idea of advertising, Agent Provocateur took it in their stride. The ban gave them a chance to position themselves as a brand that championed women’s sexuality.
More importantly, the ad was the first of many that made viewers equally entertained as they were shocked.
Iraq War Controversy (2003)
More than just a lingerie pioneer, Corre’s activist roots shone through in Agent Provocateur’s 2003 stunt. It’s no secret that Britain’s entry into Iraq polarised the nation, with support from both sides dominating the political agenda.
Perhaps one rhetoric that stood out most however, was Agent Provocateur’s. In the display windows of their London flagship store stood scantily-clad mannequins with placards reading “Weapons of mass distraction” and “The only Bush I trust is my own”.
The rhetoric was a success for the company on two levels. Firstly, it brought them publicity which increased exposure to their product. Secondly, and more importantly, the dissent embodied Agent Provocateur’s feistiness — something they try to capture in their lingerie. It gave them a chance to associate their product with going against the grain and separate themselves from other lingerie brands that overly feminise women.
Whether or not people agreed with their opinion, it was their audacity to weigh in on the war that was most effective.
Guantanamo Bay Controversy (2008)
Corre’s activism was shown through Agent Provocateur again in 2008. Corre, a vocal critic of Guantanamo Bay and its indefinite detainment of suspected criminals, pushed his brand to the forefront of Britons’ minds by sending a free pair of underwear to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
It gets funnier.
The underwear, which were a bright orange not unlike the uniforms detainees are forced to wear, had a lovely message to Brown: “Fair trial my arse”.
Once again, the stunt was more than simply mocking a public figure. It was an opportunity for Agent Provocateur to show people their provocative lingerie, as well as their brash attitude. To the company’s credit, half the profits generated were donated to Reprieve, a not-for-profit organisation that offers free legal assistance to those facing the death penalty.
“Stripped” — a new perfume (2008)
In the same year Agent Provocateur were protesting against Guantanamo Bay, they were also performing acts of public indecency. To mark the release of their new perfume, Stripped, the brand displayed an artist painting a nude model in Selfridge’s shop window. After the painting was completed, the curtains were drawn and replaced by a mannequin.
In terms of the quality of the perfume, the campaign does little to inform audiences of its smell or other features. But perhaps that’s the point. The fact that audiences knew so little about the perfume, aside from the nude model being painted, makes it mysterious; and when something is mysterious, people have to check it out.
Well played, Agent Provocateur.
“Love me tender…or else” — Valentine’s Day mini-series (2009 – Present)
Part of Agent Provocateur’s appeal runs deeper than their lingerie. It is also their ability to attract famous celebrities to wear their products and feature in their ads. This was the case for their inaugural Valentine’s Day video in 2009, featuring Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
Like Proof, which featured Kylie Minogue, the advertisement’s overly sexual elements draw viewers in, making it as comical as it is confronting. Huntington-Whiteley plays a housewife whose husband calls from the office, telling her he will have to cancel their plans for Valentine’s Day due to work commitments. Keen to get her own, the housewife visits her husband in her Agent Provocateur lingerie, sexually teasing him and leaving him full of regret.
The ad brought Agent Provocateur success for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shows the familiar scenario that everyone dreads — to have your partner bail on Valentine’s Day plans. On a deeper level, the ad also plays on the idea of the housewife being in control sexually, which extends to the overall dynamics of the relationship. This is a deliberate ploy by Agent Provocateur, to position their lingerie as more than just a fashion statement; rather, a weapon in every woman’s arsenal to attract and control men. Even as a guy watching the ad, I couldn’t help but barrack for Huntington-Whiteley’s character.
“Control Yourself” — Autumn Winter Campaign (2013)
Starring Melissa George, Control Yourself ridicules the strains female models go through in preparing for a runway show. The calm, rhythmic groove of “Total Control” by The Motels which underscores the video, contrasts the chaotic revolt staged by the models against their hordes of stylists and designers.
To be expected, the dissenting models signal their newfound liberty by tearing off the clothes they were about to display on the catwalk, revealing their lingerie — that is, Agent Provocateur’s AW Range. What follows next is over-the-top, quasi-foreplay, which typifies the urges the lingerie should make its wearers feel.
The ad maintains Agent Provocateur’s trademark combination — raunchiness with an interesting story that involves dynamics of power. Like Love me tender…or else, the females in the video are again seizing control of their destiny, where the lingerie acts as the catalyst.
Investment Bankers’ matinee (2013)
Months after their Control Yourself ad, the brand again reinvented the wheel with a private matinee, hosted by its models in Agent Provocateur lingerie. However, there was a catch — the matinee was men-only. At first, it seems a campaign like this would be counter-intuitive. After all, men don’t wear lingerie, do they?
No, they don’t. But their partners do, which is what Agent Provocateur played on in this stunt.
If the investment bankers were unaware of Agent Provocateur before that night, they certainly knew about the brand afterwards. The idea of targeting lingerie ads toward men is far from the status quo, yet it seems to be a fruitful ploy Agent Provocateur.
Other notable controversies…
Check-out chick models
When you think about models, it’s easy to picture tall, slim, excessively-airbrushed women gracing a catwalk. In true Agent Provocateur fashion, the brand turned this concept on its head by hiring check-out chicks from a London supermarket for one of their shoots.
This ad shows the power Agent Provocateur have, where they can subvert fashion industry norms yet still get desired results. Likewise, it ties into their message of emphasising the power women possess through their beauty and wearing Agent Provocateur products.
Corre rejects MBE
In 2007, Corre rejected his MBE which was to be awarded to him by Tony Blair. In a public statement, he said: “I have been chosen by an organisation headed by a prime minister who I find morally corrupt”.
After initially accepting the invitation, Corre declined. This brought substantial media attention to him and his brand, while also adding credibility to Agent Provocateur’s “Weapons of mass distraction” and “Fair trial my arse” campaigns.