ckONE (1995)

It started in September: the Calvin Klein people put up a huge promotional display in the Tower Records on the Drag. “A Fragrance for a Man or a Woman.” That skinny Kate Moss and a bunch of other starkly-photographed beautiful young people looked out from the display at the shoppers in Tower Records.

I wasn’t the first one to notice the tester bottles. I was shopping that day—no, really —buying the new R.E.M.—when they put up the display. Killing time before my 11 o’clock haircut appointment. I had a twenty-dollar-bill—I don’t remember how I got it—and I was going to buy the new R.E.M. and get a haircut.

One by one—women at first, then men—people would splash the stuff from the tester bottles on themselves. I heard one woman in a sorority t-shirt say to her friend in flannel: ”it smells like wet fur.” Giggle.

“No, not that bad, really,” Flannel said to Sorority Shirt. “Cool ‘for a Man or a Woman.’ Kinda like that Benetton cologne, huh?”

They each bought a bottle.

In the display photos, Kate Moss and her friends loitered around in pricey Calvin Klein clothing designed to look as if it were bought at a thrift store. They stood in a rough line, looking lonely and morose. Only Kate Moss looked out of the ad; most of the others avoided not only the viewers’ eyes, but each others’ as well. Except that three of the beautiful young people were arguing about something passionately important, probably shoes.

I had always labored under the misconception that the purpose of an ad is to make the viewer feel an empathy for the beautiful people in that ad, so that they get the notion that if they buy the product, then they’ll look as wonderful, and have as much fun, etc. as the people in the ad. I couldn’t imagine ckONE advertisements swaying anyone to buy the stuff. Kate Moss and her disfunctional friends seemed to be having a pretty unpleasant time. I didn’t even feel very good about the photography: black and white, overexposed and overdeveloped, overcontrasty. The ad kind of depressed me.

Today, the Calvin Klein people put slick photo ad inserts into the student newspaper. The inserts have those pull-open flaps that release the scent. Nancy and I were going to watch a movie at the second-run theater that afternoon, but before we did we took a tall stack of the newspapers and sat in the student union, sorting out all the slick ckONE inserts.

The photo is the same: young beautiful unhappy people feeling awful about ckONE. Maybe this is some sly secret handshake: anti-advertising advertising. The Calvin Klein folks know nobody has that much unfun, especially with a big bunch of their friends, and most especially if they can afford all that Calvin Klein clothing. Someone more media-savvy than me would realize this, find the whole notion so very clever, and decide to reward Calvin Klein by spending $40 on his new cologne.

Finally,” Nancy said, her voice crazy with mock enthumsiasm, “a cologne for both of us!”

A few days later, one of the kids in my Zoology lab invites me to a party: three bands for three dollars at so-and-so’s house on 26th street. Getting ready for the party—after I take a shower—I pull open three of the slick ads and rub them on my arms, neck, and chest. ckONE! I feel a little triumphant: I have circumvented the Calvin Klein advertising juggernaut, by striking at their Achilles’ heel: their reckless distribution of free ckONE. I still cannot imagine why anyone would pay $40—forty dollars!—for something they apparently give out free every semester.

“Hey Nance,” I say through the bathroom door: “Tonight: ckONE!

Oh yeah ckONE!” she shouts from the kitchen. This is going to be fun. Nancy and I will smell the same. People at the party will come up to us, and they’ll smell our fabulous cologne. And there will be live music. This is going to be fun. The few parties we go to lately are usually work affairs, or dinner parties, or barbecues. Everyone trying to be polite and comfortable with one another, all the while complimenting the host on his new homebrew, or whatever.

All the people at the party are very young: college kids, most of them probably not yet 21. Nancy and I stand in a corner by the stairs with our beers, looking at our feet and speaking short sentences in quiet tones. The kids here all look a little rumpled: baggy clothes, dumb hats, spiky haircuts, ugly shoes, leather. Three pretty teenage girls sit on the couch, leaning on their elbows, and to my surprise, they aren’t being swarmed by boys trying to get them to go upstairs. Not very many people are smiling, even though some of them are smoking pot. The prevelant cool attitude seems to be apathy, or boredom.

One of the bands is setting up in the basement: tuning their instruments, testing mikes, whatever. “It feels uncomfortably like high school,” Nancy says, frowning. I remember standing by the stairs with my beer at high school parties, while everyone else did what was cool in the ‘80s. Speed, mostly. “I hated high school,” says Nancy, “and college. I always thought I must have been absent the day in school when they took everyone into the auditorium and showed them the film about which clothes to buy. Everyone was always cooler than me.” I touch her elbow, and she bumps her nose against my shoulder. She smells like our cologne.