The Advertising Apprentice

October 4, 2009

Does Sex Sell?

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 5:02 PM
Tags: , , , ,

Ah the age old debate, what, if any, place does sex have in advertising. Since we are not living in a Puritan society it’s safe to say that sex does have a place in advertising. Everyone has an opinion on this topic (there is even an entry on Wikipedia on the subject), including yours truly. If you’ll indulge me I’ll explain my viewpoint.

In previous posts I’ve discussed such hot-button issues as racism in advertising and shock value in advertising.  The discussion on shock-value alludes to the use of sex in advertising with the reference I made to the Flirt Vodka ads.

To begin the discussion, have a look at this video:

By the way October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

After watching the video what are your thoughts? Did you just open a new browser so that you could Google Booby Ball? Are you now considering donating money to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation? If you said, “yes” to either question the use of the attractive young woman walking around a pool in bikini in slow motion was an effective way of reaching you!

Personally I just see it as another ad using an attractive woman to sell a product/service. They’ve come up with a carnal way of attracting and retaining our attention span for a minute long PSA on breast cancer. Had that been a shorter 30-second PSA spouting out all these stats there’s no way it would have garnered nearly as many views, nor would it have received attention south of the border on news outlets such as CNN, ABC, and The Huffington Post.

I could provide examples ad nauseum of advertising campaigns that have used sex to sell a product or service. But the content of these examples probably would likely fall under the NSFW category. Instead let’s have a look at what advertising experts have to say.

On this subject David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising said “Some copywriters, assuming that the reader will find the product as boring as they do, try to inveigle him into their ads with pictures of babies, beagles and bosoms.” This observation is particularly true when considering the Save the Boobs commercial.

I again ask would Booby Ball have received as much attention if it was a 63 second clip of a monotone narrator spewing out a bunch of facts about breast cancer meanwhile the images were of a woman getting a mammogram? Obviously the answer is no. I realize I’m repeating myself here but I’m doing it intentionally to drive home the idea that despite the supposed controversy this ad has stirred, it had to be done to get our attention. Did the above ad generate awareness attention for breast cancer? Of course, but the issue lies in how many people actually registered for the event because of seeing that ad? Was this ad effective in generating action? It’s an answer that the organizers of the event will hopefully provide.

Bob Garfield, advertising critic with Advertising Age, chimes in on the topic in his book And Now A Few Words From Me; “The problem is that so much advertising sex is neither charming nor artful nor remotely to the point. Sex is employed so haphazardly, so excessively, and very often so abusively that it frequently does more harm than good.” Garfield here is reinforcing what Ogilvy said in that the use of sex in advertising must be relevant.

It seems that other than advertisements for fashion and alcohol, the only time you see sex used is when the product/service is “boring” or not that exciting. In my opinion advertising for products with sexual inferences like birth control, erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra or Cialis, or lubricant are tame by comparison to other product classes. I’ve never seen an ad for Trojan showing two people rushing to get each other’s clothes off and then stopping when they realize neither has a condom followed by the tagline along the lines of “No glove, no love” and the Trojan logo. I’m sure Ogilvy would find that a relevant use of sex in advertising!

As far as I am concerned using sex in advertising works in attracting attention for your product/service. But in order to retain attention you need to use something to back it up. It goes back to the debate on shock-value. Is there any value in the “shock” or is it just about getting attention and hoping that the sexual tone of the ad is successful in generating action?

There’s a parallel here between the use of sex in advertising and the use of humour in advertising. Just like how you can’t remember the specific product being advertised in that funny commercial you saw last week, I’m confident that a week from now you won’t be able to recall what was being advertised in that commercial with a well-endowed girl parading around a pool in a bikini.

poll conducted by the Institute of Communication Agencies and Leger Marketing found that only 7% of Canadians feel that sexually persuasive advertising is effective. This is compared with the 67% of Canadians that find humour-based advertising to be the best method of connecting with the audience. These results reinforce what Ogilvy said, “Advertising reflects the mores of society, but does notinfluence them.” It’s clear that the Canadian society appreciates a good laugh in an ad more than they appreciate an ad that stimulates their carnal emotions.

The other issue to consider is if sex does sell, where is the line? As advertisers we always try to best our competition and/or ourselves by pushing the envelope. When dealing with sex in advertising we have to watch that we don’t cross that line and reach a point where there is nothing tasteful about it.

To answer the headline question, yes sex does indeed sell. But the truth lies in finding out to what extent it sells. So relying on the above referenced survey and considering Ogilvy’s observations when advertising to Canadians unless your product has to do with sex, you are better off and using humour to sell your product instead of sex. For instance an advertisement for a mattress showing it’s durability could easily use a sexual tone and feature two people about to be intimate or you could use a humourous tone and show a couple children jumping around on the bed.


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