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Balenciaga Controversial Ad and the Industry’s Dark History of Child Exploitation

by | Nov 27, 2022 | Celebrities, Crime

Balenciaga’s new holiday campaign has sparked major controversy due to the brand using children as models that were surrounded by questionable items and teddy bears that sported BDSM attire. The ad has subsequently been retracted and taken down. When the brand re-posted new photos there were still controversial images which only added insult to injury and made people more upset. 

Balenciaga has not issued a formal apology from itself, rather has issued an apology on behalf of those they place the blame on for creating and running the campaign. It is evident to us all that Balenciaga was not blind to what was occurring. They had been putting easter eggs in their ads that give Taylor Swift a run for her money. This may be new information to a lot of people and unfortunately, this is not new. Not only are these issues not new they have been building over years and years of Hollywood elitists while those speaking out were suppressed. It is a dark deep dive and often hard to swallow…but one that needs to be tackled. 

What Happened 

Balenciaga released its 2022 holiday ad which has since been taken down. Unfortunately for them, the internet is quite literally forever and the images are still circulating all over social media. The images they chose to use for the holiday season included children holding teddy bears that were sporting BDSM gear (such as chains, fishnets, locks, and harnesses). The photos were set in a bedroom with other props that made people feel uneasy. One was set in a bedroom on a bed with Balenciaga merchandise that also included heavy metal chains, belts, etc. It is obvious the tone Balenciaga was trying to create.

 This was not scandalous enough however after the images received backlash people started to really deep dive into Balenciaga ads. During the same campaign, there was an image of a black bag on top of papers that were strewn about a desk. When you zoom in on the papers you can see that one stands out. One of the papers is a court document for Ashcroft v Free Speech Coalition. 

Ashcroft V Free Speech Coalition 

The Free Speech Coalition is the nonprofit national trade association of the adult entertainment and pleasure products industry. In Ashcroft V Free Speech Coalition the “Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Child Pornography Prevention Act (CPPA) of 1996 that banned “virtual child pornography,” which the justices said was neither obscene nor actual child pornography as defined by previous decisions”. 

The First Amendment

Much of pornography is protected under the constitutional first amendment which protects freedom regarding religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. The first amendment also protects freedom of speech. All of these are protected without government intervention or consequences. This amendment has come up so many times in the United States’ history and has been notoriously used and twisted. The first Amendment protects pornography except in two instances; child pornography and obscenity. Defining obscenity has been extremely difficult and controversial which ultimately lead to the decision in Ashcroft V Free Speech Coalition. Many believe this allowed wiggle room for child exploitation. 

It makes sense as to why people are outraged that this luxe fashion brand Balenciaga had the court documents in one of its images. And it does not stop there. 

In another image literally, the image they chose to replace the first problematic image, a stack of books was pictured that included a book published by Michael Borreman. Borreman also made an installment of art called “Fire From the Sun” that in exhibitor David Zimmers words includes small- and large-scale works that feature toddlers engaged in playful but mysterious acts with sinister overtones and insinuations of violence”. Upon looking at the images, children were portrayed playing together in what looks to be blood with nuances of cannibalism. Art will always be subject to interpretation and there is nothing playful about these images. They are not easy to look at and many have expressed that the art is sick and inappropriate paintings of children. This was Yet another extremely questionable background choice for the ad. 

The more that people investigate and find in these images the more difficult it is to believe that this was a fluke. Between the children, teddy bears in BDSM, the court document, and the book it seems the ad is literally alluding to child exploitation. There seems to be no other logical reason for the item placements and use of children…especially for what was to be a holiday ad. There is not one thing holiday about that ad. Shock value and being edgy are a part of the fashion industry but this seems to cross the line. So the pressing question is why has Balenciaga chosen to create images that seemingly support child exploitation.  

Why Leave the Easter Eggs? 

We are all asking why Balenciaga would put such documents in their ads. Balenciaga claims it was not a calculated move and is placing blame on everyone else except themselves. They are blaming the children’s parents, the set designer, and just about everyone involved including a third-party agency that had power and control over the entire ad. If you’ve ever worked in marketing you know that no detail is unintentional. Mistakes do happen and most ad campaigns especially at this magnitude have been combed through, discussed, calculated, and every detail purposefully put in place. Balenciaga saying they were unaware of the documents seems impossible. 

Balenciaga History 

Balenciaga was founded in 1919 in Spain by designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. Balenciaga quickly rose to fame during World War II when it was one of 60 companies allowed to keep producing whereas most were restricted from the Nazi occupation in Paris. It was noted that many risked their lives to travel for its clothing despite the danger. Balenciaga is now owned by Kering and is one of the most prominent luxury brands. In the last few years, Balenciaga particularly took off because of its eclectic styles and fashion shows. One show included the models stomping through dirt and mud. Infamous celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid have endorsed the brand and been models. 

Balenciaga’s parent company is Kering which is the parent company to many luxury brands that include Gucci, YSL, Alexander McQueen, and Bottega. Kering’s biggest stockholder is the Vanguard International Group. Some are speculating that there are ties to how powerful the company is and that it has been exploitive for years and people are just catching on. For now, these are all allegations and have yet to be completely proven. It is evident that this holiday ad means something…we have yet to see the full picture if we ever will. 

Now the fate of Balenciaga is unknown. In light of its recent controversy, many have taken to social media to investigate other problematic connections the brand may have had in the past that were overlooked. People are still investigating why Balenciaga chose to use items in connection with child exploitation. People have also noticed that Balenciaga is extremely pricey and currently has major discounts at retailers such as Nordstroms. Although black Friday is upon us, it is not normal for a luxe brand to have as many and as deep of discounts as Balenciaga has. Many are calling for retailers to drop the brand completely. 

Who is Really to Blame? 

On the contrary, some are speculating that this all was a poor design choice. That the people creating the set are to blame and there was not enough cross-checking with what was allowed on the set. As previously stated, mistakes can and do happen. Perhaps whoever was responsible for printing out the papers to display the Balenciaga bag saw the court document and had no understanding of what it meant. I had to do a little research to get a full picture. But someone somewhere had to obtain or print out those items and I can’t think of how that could have happened without some knowledge of the case. 

Many are calling out the parents of the children used in the ad. It was reported that the children in the ad were Balenciagas employees. It has also been stated by an anonymous parent that the children were “having fun” on set. Almost justifying their actions. The children were likely having fun. They are children and don’t know any better…a funny-looking teddy bear could be just that to them. Often, they don’t know they are in danger which is why they have parents and need adult support to guide them. 

Like with most things in Hollywood, if someone did have a problem with something, not many stood up against it. It’s not so much of a value system issue but rather an unfair power dynamic. That one person speaking out would likely be in the minority and could face retaliation, punishment, or even termination. This is not to say it’s an excuse to allow things such as child exploitation and we need to look at the industry as a whole and see its shortcomings. This is also a reason why people who have been sexually assaulted by someone in power or a celebrity have an even harder time coming forward. Whether you want to believe it or not, money makes our world go round and it can really go the distance when someone with it is faced with controversy. 

Overall, many are to blame for this holiday ad controversy. From the top to the bottom the entire situation is a mess. Balenciaga has taken some responsibility and they are the brand. They have been creating ads for too long to allow this ad to be run not only the first time…but for a second. You would think upon removing the first controversial ad they would ensure the second was appropriate. 

Recent Celebs Facing Heat

This Balenciaga ad is bringing light to a lifelong problem in the fashion industry and Hollywood. More and more child stars are coming out and sharing their experiences of either being sexually assaulted or used while working in the industry. Once again because of money and power many who have had these experiences have often been silenced. 

Stephen Collins was a famous American actor best known for playing the dad and priest in the popular show 7th Heaven. An audio recording of a therapy session was leaked to the press where Collins admits to having sexual relations with multiple children that were between 11 and 13 years old. On the outside, you would think this would be a pretty obvious open-and-shut case and Collins is currently in prison. Collins was never charged because after a two-year-long investigation police would claim that too much had passed since the crimes were committed and they dropped their investigation. 

This is one instance of many child exploitation issues in Hollywood. Drew Barrymore has been completely open about her experience of growing up as a child star and being exploited which led to her drug abuse and the young age of 11. Honestly, I could go on and on with examples of child exploitation and injustice in the industry. It is all connected in one way or another. 

Final Thoughts 

It is really interesting to see how the law has changed throughout the years and often not for the better like we would hope and think. We are now living in a time where some aspects of child exploitation are protected when saying gay is not allowed. Where the freedom to be yourself whether that be gay or transgendered is condemned once again as predatory behavior when real predators walk freely due to prestige and status. 

Either way, the ad was inappropriate. I think the images were one thing but the court documents really took it to another level of being inappropriate. Many brands are looking for shock value to promote their luxury items and they are always seeking to do something different and edgy. Right now it seems Hollywood is bursting with controversy concerning sexual assault allegations and child exploitation. One thing is for sure, people will not stop digging and deep diving into Balenciaga. This may not be the impact they had intended and nevertheless, they have created a major controversy that will likely not go away anytime soon. 

If there is anything good to come out of this situation is that more attention might be brought to the industry and issues with child exploitation. Consumers are being more critical of brands and the content they consume, as they should be. It seems as time goes on more people are feeling empowered to share their experiences which can help save future children from the dangers of the industry. 

About The Author

Julie Johansson

Educated in Criminal Justice and a true crime junkie. Former mall cop, fur mom and women's rights advocate. I am trying to engage in more important topics and writing is how I connect with my community and the world.

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