Civil Liberties

Victims of Everything


Like you, I've seen innumerable Calvin Klein ads featuring sallow, sullen, scrawny youths.

Not once have I had an overwhelming urge to rush out and buy some heroin, and probably neither have you. Yet the death of Davide Sorrenti, a 20-year-old fashion photographer who overdosed on heroin in February, is now being held up as proof that such images have the power to turn people into junkies.

On Wednesday President Clinton accused the fashion industry of "increasing the allure of heroin among young people" and urged it not to "glamorize addiction" to sell clothes. "We now see on college campuses and in neighborhoods heroin becoming increasingly the drug of choice," he said. "And we know that part of this has to do with the images that are finding their way to our young people."

In reality, heroin is not "the drug of choice" by any stretch of the imagination. In the Government's 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 0.1 percent of respondents reported that they had used the drug in the previous month. A nationwide study done in 1994 for the Department of Health and Human Services found about the same level of heroin use among 19- to 28-year-olds; marijuana use was 140 times as common, and alcohol was far and away the most popular intoxicant.

And there is no reason to expect that people attracted to the look promoted by Calvin Klein and other advertisers—a cynical, sanitized vision of drug use that pretends to reflect a gritty reality—will also be attracted to heroin, any more than suburban teen-agers who wear baggy pants and backward caps will end up shooting people from moving cars.

Nevertheless, the editors of the cutting-edge fashion magazines that helped popularize the heroin-chic look are professing repentance. "With Davide's death," said Long Nguyen, Detour's style director, "we realized how powerful fashion pictures are."

And how powerful is that? Leaving aside the point that Mr. Sorrenti, as a producer of these images, can hardly be seen as an unknowing victim of their influence, it is important to keep in mind what pictures can and cannot do. Clearly, they can provoke outrage. They can also pique curiosity, create awareness and elicit a range of emotional reactions. But they cannot make anyone buy jeans or perfume, let alone take up heroin. Nor can they make kids smoke cigars, despite the claims of critics about the power of photos showing cigar-chomping celebrities. A conscious mind must intervene, deciding how to interpret the message and whether to act on it.

Blurring the distinction between persuasion and coercion is often the first step toward censorship. In the 1950's, John Kenneth Galbraith and Vance Packard argued that corporations used advertising to manipulate consumers and create an artificial desire for their products. The Federal court that upheld the 1970 ban on broadcast advertising of cigarettes was clearly influenced by such ideas, citing "the subliminal impact of this pervasive propaganda."

We see the same line of thinking today. In calling for restrictions on Web sites promoting alcohol and tobacco, the Center for Media Education, a research group in Washington, warns that "interactivity has a hypnotic and addictive quality that some analysts believe could be stronger than television."

The aim of such arguments is to portray people not as independent moral agents but as mindless automatons. It's a view of human nature that encourages the flight from responsibility to victimhood that we see all around us: the smoker who blames a cigarette maker for his lung cancer, the heavy drinker who blames the liquor company for her baby's birth defects, the mass murderer who blames dirty magazines for inspiring his crimes.

So far no one has called for a ban on glassy-eyed waifs, and the critics of heroin chic have every right to decry the message they believe it sends. But they should be careful not to send a dangerous message themselves: that the dictates of fashion overwhelm our ability to choose.