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Banishing the bimbo?

Warning: This article has received an R rating from its writer. Some of its material may be offensive to readers. All of it is based on actual television and print advertising.

FANTASY 1: A shapely young woman stuffed into a spaghetti-stringed, partly unzipped dress seductively gyrates for the camera _ and for an admiring man wearing Jordache jeans.

FANTASY 2: A man, pictured from his well-developed torso downward, is taking a shower with his Calvin Klein jeans. Only he's not wearing them; he appears to be using them to masturbate.

FANTASY 3: A group of hiking men discover, to their delight, a half dozen bikini-clad, Swedish women parachuting from the sky, bearing Old Milwaukee beer and bounce.

This isn't porn. It's advertising. And, to borrow from the Old Milwaukee ad, it doesn't get any hotter than this.

Turn on the television or turn a page in a magazine. The message coming out loud and clear is that sex still sells _ everything from power tools to perfume.

For decades, slinky women have been draped over car hoods and well-endowed barmaids have been slinging beers in commercials.

But lately that kind of sales pitch has fallen on increasingly hostile ears. Consumers, particularly women, are more apt to complain about what they see as sexism in advertising. And marketers, many for the first time, are beginning to listen.

Anheuser-Busch Cos., the nation's largest beer marketer, earlier this month announced a new ad campaign for Michelob that features female bonding and a little male beefcake. Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch's Bud Dry brand replaced the male chauvinistic comedy in its "Why Ask Why?" ads with jokes on men, too.

"The key is you don't want to offend anyone," said Steve Burrows, vice president of brand marketing at Anheuser-Busch. "We're in the business to sell beer, not un-sell it."

Last year Levi Strauss & Co. launched an ad campaign sans the usual nubile female models. Instead, abstract, Matisse-like images peddle its women's jeans in print and billboard ads.

"We decided we needed to make the product easier for women to deal with," said Jack Rooney, a senior vice president at Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco, Levi Strauss' ad agency.

Donna Karan, a New York clothing designer, recently launched a magazine ad campaign that appears to show a woman running for president, wearing well-tailored business suits, of course.

Welcome to advertising in the '90s. Madison Avenue is getting a crash course in political correction, and many advertisers are re-examining the thin line between sex and sexism in ads.

"Today's knowledgeable ad agency has really gotten away from the sexist thing," said Ron Loewenthal, vice president of FKQ Advertising in Clearwater. "I wouldn't have said that two years ago."

Two years ago, few people had ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. And the Old Milwaukee Swedish Bikini Team was just a twinkle in some ad director's eye.

The Thomas-Hill battle brought to TV screens around the country the daily struggle many women endure for respect at work. The hearing galvanized millions of women, causing many to become more active in feminist organizations.

The bikini team, on the other hand, was supposed to make people laugh at the beer industry's penchant for prurience. Instead the team has become a weapon in a sexual harassment suit by eight Stroh Brewery Co. employees, who contend that the ads show the company condones disrespect toward women. (Stroh denies that.)

Lawsuits and political controversy can have a chilling effect on advertisers, said Jerry Taylor, vice president of marketing and advertising for Jordache Enterprises Inc. in New York.

Now advertisers are reluctant to portray women as homemakers for fear of offending career women, and they avoid featuring businesswomen because homemakers can't relate, Taylor said.

"The advertising community is so gun-shy against alienating women that they are afraid to show them in the home and afraid of showing them in the workplace," he said. "They're retreating to neutral grounds."

They haven't retreated far enough for Jill Savitt, spokeswoman for the Center for the Study of Commercialism in Washington, D.C.

"There have been a couple of rumblings of sensitivity," she said, "but the prevalent imagery stays the same _ rife with sexism."

Even some of the advertisers who claim a greater awareness of sexual stereotyping still manage to prominently feature female body parts in some ads, she said.

Budweiser, for instance, recently used two shapely women truckdrivers bending low or adjusting their blouses to show cleavage in a Bud Light print ad. And Donna Karan, who recently developed a lingerie line, couldn't resist displaying it on her presidential candidate; her blouse appeared to blow open during a parade.

Recently the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women named the advertising industry the worst offender in perpetuating the image of women as sex symbols and inferior humans.

Even Taylor at Jordache acknowledges that Madison Avenue has turned up the heat so much, it may be burning the hand that feeds it.

"The apparel and fragrance industries have probably been the two greatest exploiters of women," he said. "I'm not sure it's done knowingly."

Part of the problem, though, is that not everyone agrees on what is sexist.

Taylor said Jordache's recent ad, with the dancing woman, is sexy but not sexist because it portrays women as the sexual aggressor.

"I think every woman can see herself as a seductress, even if it's just in a fantasy," he said.

The problem is that sometimes men see women as seductresses at the damndest times _ like at work or at school, countered Savitt. Some ads reinforce that.

"If you were an alien coming to Earth and you looked at today's ads, you'd think all women were constantly primed for sex," she said.

"Why are we so surprised that there's so much date rape on campuses? Advertising didn't create sexism, but it regularly perpetuates it and regularly exacerbates it."

But just because an ad is sexy it's not always sexist, countered Bob Garfield, ad critic for Advertising Age and a self-described FWG (Feminist with Glands).

"Sex is a powerful, basic human desire, right up there with hiding things from your mother," he said. "I defend the rights of advertisers to use sexual images to sell me."

Take the Cindy Crawford ad to introduce Pepsi's new logo. In the ad, two prepubescent boys appear to leer as the famous model, braless and minimally clad, guzzles down a Pepsi. The joke's on the audience when the boys reveal they were really admiring the Pepsi logo.

That ad worked because of its humorous twist, said Tom Pirko, a beverage industry marketing consultant in Los Angeles. But the ad also drew criticism because it appeared to condone sexual reactions among children, he said.

"This one's complicated," he said. "You're looking at little boys discovering sex, something that is a real touchy issue for a Pepsi ad."

Men, by the way, are not immune to marketers' penchant for parading flesh.

For years, Calvin Klein has used naked men and women in its Obsession fragrance ads. In a recent magazine spread, it featured the photo of a man showering with his jeans. Calvin Klein's chief spokesman in New York did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.

Also, Miami-based Blau Textile Inc. recently launched a magazine campaign featuring naked but finely chiseled men reclining on Blautex fabrics. The ads appear in architectural design magazines.

"We wanted to do something a little eye-catching," said president Gerald Blau. "I wouldn't consider our ads about sex, just artistic expression."

Garfield said advertisers use shock tactics to attract media attention _ and free publicity. The news media should just ignore it, he said.

"Calvin Klein's ads would be a tree falling in the forest if we ignore them," he said.

But people aren't ignoring them. The Jordache ad prompted at least 200 calls of protest, Taylor said. The Calvin Klein shower scene was described in numerous trade journals and newspapers. And Stroh has said it will retire its bikini team from TV commercials.