How much trouble is Calvin Klein really in? Not much, according to legal and media experts.
Even the Justice Department is soft-selling an FBI inquiry into whether Mr. Klein violated child-pornography laws with his recently stricken CK Jeans campaign.
"Ridiculous" is the word most often used by industry observers in reaction to news of the probe.
But the fact remains that the campaign, featuring young amateur models in provocative situations, has caught the government's eye at a time when conservative factions are flexing considerable political muscle.
Mr. Klein, perhaps the most high-profile designer in the world, is famous for tweaking the notion of sexual propriety.
He could still have, if not a criminal problem, a public-relations disaster on his hands.
The last few days have been a virtual whirlwind for the designer. On Sept. 7, he was on "Good Morning America," talking fashion and prepping for the realization of a career goal: his own elegant 20,000-square-foot boutique on Madison Avenue.
The next day, he was hit with a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal telling of an FBI "investigation" into the CK/child pornography issue.
Newspapers and TV jumped on the story over the weekend.
Some, such as the New York Times, gave the story short shrift, while New York's Daily News went Page 1.
As for his potential legal problems, John Russell, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said it's far too early to tell if Mr. Klein is in any trouble.
Mr. Russell characterized the Wall Street Journal story as "jumping the gun."
"The story is written as such that you'd believe the Calvin Klein offices are being surrounded by FBI agents. That is not so," he said.
"The FBI has not lifted one finger on this. It is a preliminary investigation being discussed at Justice's criminal division's child-exploitation section and FBI headquarters."
"I would characterize it as an inquiry," Mr. Russell said. "When the FBI goes out and talks to witnesses, uses search warrants, seeks grand jury subpoenas, that is what I would call an investigation."
Privately, government sources said the probe is not a high priority and criminal charges appear unlikely.
Should the government choose to make a case, however, it has already determined one key fact: Some of the models were under 18, an essential component to the child-pornography laws, although sources said Mr. Klein may not have been aware of their ages.
The CK issue began to heat up publicly when the conservative American Family Association petitioned U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
But Mr. Russell said the Klein ads caught the Justice Department's attention soon after the campaign was launched, two weeks before the American Family Association's request.
At issue is whether the ads violated laws designed to protect children from being exploited by pornographers.
No advertisers charged
However, no pornography cases have ever been brought against a national company for its advertising.
Prosecutions have focused on cases involving homemade and underground purveyors of pornography. As such, penalties for a single offense carry a maximum 10-year prison term and $250,000 fine.
Pornography is a First Amendment issue, and a lot of leeway is generally given to even the most tasteless advertising, according to media scholars, who note the Klein ads seem to DTC mimic homemade child pornography. For instance, the ads appear to have been shot in a paneled basement of a suburban home in which the models look like they are being asked to perform.
"It's possible for an advertiser to flunk the tackiness test but still pass the legal test," said Sandy Scott, communications law professor, University of Missouri School of Journalism. "If the ads are glorifying pornography, then certainly Calvin Klein could have a problem -- but it's a public-relations problem."
Ms. Scott doubts that Mr. Klein will be prosecuted since, she said, there doesn't seem to be an out-and-out violation of the law: The Klein ads aren't explicit but rather allude to sexual behavior.
"Pornography is difficult to define," said Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, excerpting former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous line on how to determine what's pornography: "I know it when I see it."
"I don't think the ads constitute kiddie porn," Mr. Dennis said. "Kiddie porn is a pretty serious allegation that usually involves pretty brutal sexual exploitation of children. The ads I have seen are certainly suggestive and have a come-hither look and demonstrate a sexual content and quality. But does this encourage explicit activity or underage sex? I don't think there is any evidence of that."
For Biergit Wassmuth, associate professor of advertising also at Missouri, the protest against the Klein ads from conservative and family groups will work in his favor since teen-agers will want to buy something that's verboten.
A mirror to society
"Do you think he's going to lose any business over this? I don't," the professor said. "I just saw the movie 'Kids.' It's the most disturbing movie I've ever seen, in which 13-year-olds are having sex. I think Calvin Klein can point to the movie and say, 'Why are you looking at me?'
"In Calvin Klein's defense, he could be holding a mirror up and reflecting what's in society, which makes us upset."
After the CK campaign ignited numerous protests, Mr. Klein pulled the multimillion-dollar broadcast and print campaign two weeks ago.
The designer has stated publicly the ads were misunderstood and apologized for offending anyone. He refused to be interviewed for this story.
A Calvin Klein spokesman said: "We are very confident that we have violated no law, and it is sheer demagoguery to suggest otherwise."
Steven Meisel, who photographed the campaign, could not be reached for comment.
But despite the negative publicity, retailers, many of whom distanced themselves from the campaign, report that CK Jeans, after some delivery glitches, are selling better than ever.
Asked if the ads were overly suggestive or pornographic, Gene Pressman, co-chairman of Barneys New York, who -- with Barneys' often satirical windows -- is no stranger to controversy, said, "I really didn't look at them in the beginning, until it was brought to my attention. I thought they were trying to put a spoof on the tacky '60s, using ugly backgrounds -- that cheap wood paneling.
"Calvin tried to evoke some kind of message. I don't know if I would call it controversy. He certainly didn't want to create all this negative feeling. . . . It's blown way out of proportion."
Mr. Pressman predicted Mr. Klein won't lose his edge in advertising but added, "One has a tendency to look over their shoulder a little bit." Other advertisers might also. "There's a heightening awareness of the Right in this country. People are very sensitive of that stuff. It's a reverse of the Sixties."
Caught in the middle
For its part, the advertising community was shocked and outraged by the government query. They believe Mr. Klein was caught in the middle of a right-wing movement, however preliminary the government's interest.
Jerry Della Femina, chairman of Jerry & Ketchum, called the possible Justice Department probe "the single most ridiculous thing I've heard in my life.
"It's incredible. It trivializes something as horrible as kiddie porn. You get very nervous when you live in the country that would arrest a guy who does a lousy advertising campaign. If their taste is the subject of a government probe, then we all should consider moving.
"This is really a pressure group running amok," Mr. Della Femina added. "I don't know if it would sell product, but even if it sold product it should not have been done," he said. "Certainly they went too far, not from the standpoint of it being pornographic because -- let's face it -- I'm driving in my car right now and my shirt's unbuttoned. Some people might think that's pornographic."
"It's ridiculous," said Mark Balet, partner in Balet & Albert, an ad agency in New York, responding to the FBI probe.
"It's like an easy mark. As opposed to doing their jobs, it's 'Let's go after the biggest name -- Calvin will give us that press.'
"The big whale that's hurting nobody they go after, but all the sharks hurting people they leave alone. Calvin's the big whale on the horizon and he's the easy target."