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Her Career's in the Toilet (but that's a good thing)

Dari Marder, Advertising and Communications '84, creates scandalous ads for Iconix

by Alexander Gelfand

In 1997, Dari Marder was trying to stir up interest in Candie’s, the line of women’s shoes and accessories owned by her boss, Neil Cole. Marder, now the chief marketing officer of Cole’s Iconix Brand Group, Inc., which owns and licenses 26 brands ranging from London Fog to Rocawear, was doing a test shoot with a photographer and a model in a New York brownstone. She walked past a bathroom, and creative lightning struck: why not put the model on the toilet?

“The photographer said, ‘Let’s do it!’” recalls Marder, who liked the results so much that she pitched the idea to Jenny McCarthy. The finished ads, which showed the former Playboy centerfold and MTV host on the john, her underwear around her ankles and a pair of classic Candie’s slides on her feet, appeared in magazines from YM to Spin. They were beautifully shot, extremely controversial—and highly effective. “It was a very provocative shot that made people uncomfortable,” says Marder, who is tall, lean, and sophisticated—the epitome of a successful New York marketing executive. “You would not believe the letters we got—from the moms, of course. The girls loved it.”

The buzz those ads generated helped revitalize the once-flagging brand, and consumers of a certain age still think of McCarthy when they hear the name Candie’s. Marder reinforced the association by putting McCarthy back on the toilet in 2004, this time with singer Kelly Clarkson in a bathtub, wearing nothing but jewelry and her Candie’s.

The McCarthy ads were not Marder’s first brush with notoriety. Ever since she made Donna Rice the spokeswoman for Cole’s No Excuses jeans in 1987— just after revelations of Rice’s affair with Senator Gary Hart hit the tabloids, derailing the senator’s presidential aspirations—Marder has created promotional campaigns that push both boundaries and buttons.

In the late 1980s, when acid-washed jeans were all the rage, Marder needed a way to distinguish Cole’s version from the competition. Major media outlets were clamoring for interviews with Rice, including Playboy, where Marder previously worked as assistant to the fashion editor (a position attained through an FIT internship). She used her old contacts at the magazine to get the name of Rice’s agent, and the resulting campaign, which included a TV spot with a sultry Rice saying, “I make no excuses; I only wear them,” continues to be cited in marketing textbooks.

Marder found the tools she picked up at FIT were directly applicable to her work at Cole’s. The first time she sat down to write a press release, she realized she knew what its components needed to be because she’d learned them in class. The provocative nature of her work is her own, though: a 2009 campaign for London Fog showed pregnant supermodel Gisele Bündchen naked in a half-open trench coat, her nipples barely concealed under a slender corporate logo. The ads were too racy to appear in China and Dubai, but they attracted plenty of attention in the United States—which was, after all, the point. “I don’t want to be offensive,” Marder says, “but I want to provoke, and create a conversation.”

These days, that conversation often takes place online, with fans—and haters—voicing their opinions on blogs and social media sites. As a marketer, Marder is both attuned to digital media—she will, she says, spend hours reading “pages and pages” of online comments about the company’s brands, and the celebrities who represent them—and determined to capitalize on its growing importance as a means of communicating with consumers. For example, Marder says she learned a lot about fans of tabloid fixture Britney Spears, who has been the somewhat controversial face of Candie’s for the past two years, by reading their Twitter posts. In fact, Candie’s spring 2011 campaign, featuring High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, was inspired by the spontaneity and candor of Twitter.

Rather than presenting a formal, full-page shot of Hudgens in her Candie’s gear, Marder opted for a fold-out ad with 15 photos, many annotated with Hudgens’s off-the-cuff remarks. In one picture, Hudgens stands on the counter of a diner, making a goofy face for the camera. In another, she appears in front of a clothes rack full of the stylist’s picks; the handwritten caption says, “I took this look home with me.” The entire series, which will appear in Vogue, recalls the sense of intimacy and insider access that consumers get from a celebrity’s Twitter feed or Facebook page.

As digital media, and social networking in particular, become more important, Marder sees them taking a more prominent role in marketing. “It’s totally changed everything we do,” she says. Marder makes sure her staff of marketing and public relations professionals saves materials from every campaign she oversees for possible distribution across social media. And she is eager to leverage the large online followings that many celebrities bring with them to the brands they represent.

Those fans can be useful in many contexts. Last November, for instance, Marder tapped Bristol Palin, Sarah Palin’s daughter, and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, of MTV’s reality show Jersey Shore, to star in an online video for The Candie’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing teen pregnancy. (Palin, who had a son out of wedlock as a teenager, is a spokesperson for the group.) Both Palin and Sorrentino have legions of online followers, and the piece, which was both humorous and edgy—at one point, Sorrentino offers Palin, who promotes abstinence, a Trojan Magnum, “just in case”—immediately went viral. Thus far, it has registered nearly one billion views.

This spring, Marder hopes to have Spears introduce Hudgens to her ten million Facebook friends and Twitter followers as the new face of Candie’s, even before the story breaks in more traditional media. There’s nothing controversial in this move: Hudgens is as clean-cut a starlet as one might find. But as Marder is quick to point out, controversy is not an end unto itself, but only a tool for attracting attention. “Our whole job here is to drive to retail, and to have people buy our brands,” she says. That goal is best served by using the right tools for the job, given the brand that she is working with and the demographic that she wants to reach.

And if toilets, half-naked pregnant women, and pumped-up Jersey guys just happen to be the right tools, then so be it.

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