Friday, January 21, 2011

Wot's wrong with bein' sexy?

If you have been reading this blog for some time, you may have realized I'm a man who is dealing with an inner conflict. And that inner conflict is, I think, something most modern men have to come to terms with: In a society of equality, can images of women be "sexy" without being "sexIST"?

For example, you've probably seen me rant about American Apparel, and how in their ads they make their employees look like kidnapped teens in homemade porn. Or how PeTA uses the passionate conviction of their young members and celebrity endorsers to sexualize animal cruelty and dietary choices.

In other posts, you may have seen me rail against prudishness and censorship, whether it is what I feel are ignorant reactions to tasteful nudity in ads, or the misinterpretation of nudity in health or breastfeeding contexts as deliberately sexual.

So you can imagine that this video got my attention when it showed up in the morning Twitterfeed:

It was created an posted by Ivan Raszl, founder and curator of Ads of The World.

Just in case you aren't in advertising, and haven't heard of Ads of The World, it's a collection of campaigns from all over the globe. Agencies submit their work to share, brag, get industry critique, and get exposure for themselves and their clients.

Ads of The World has also become the "go-to" place for ad bloggers to find the latest and greatest campaigns. Look at the source links for many posts by Osocio, AdFreak, CopyranterAdrants, and others, and often it will be "AOTW". (It goes both ways — AOTW syndicates Copyranter's posts on Twitter.)

Seeing a video like that, by someone who probably has one of the broadest perspectives on international advertising, I wondered what he was trying to say. Is advertising too sexy? Is it sexist? Is it stupid?

But this being 2011, I stopped wondering and just messaged Ivan up on Facebook. (Ad bloggers love to network there.) Here is our instant interview from this morning:

Tom: What is the overall message you are trying to convey?

Ivan: No message, just a showcase of sexy ads.

Tom: Do you think overt sexuality in ads is good creative strategy, or is it lazy?

Ivan: I think it's a good strategy to use sex for products that are related to sex— for example lingerie, condoms, beauty products, even certain alcohol products. But it's lame to use it for real estate or industrial companies, as it looks desperate and irrelevant.

Tom: Do you think ads sexualizing women are more effective with men, or women? Why are there so few "sexy man" ads?

Ivan: Sex is a major driving force for men. Women are comparatively less nudity-oriented, so they can be turned on by a man even if he isn't naked.  Also, women like to look at other women for a different reason: They look at them for inspiration, how the hair is done, how the eyebrows are done, what colors they wear, etc.

Tom: As curator of AOTW, you must see the trends from a macro level. Is it possible for an ad to be sexual without being sex-ist? What is the difference?

Ivan: How do you define sexist? It doesn't mean anything to me. Sexy is sexy, sexism is when you discriminate based on sex. I don't see how it applies to ads. You mean ads that imply that woman or men are less capable of certain mental tasks?

Tom: Some people believe that sexualization of women in ads makes men objectify them more as physical things, and makes women feel inadequate if they don't have toned — and photoshopped — bodies.

Ivan: I think ads just visualize what some men already think to be true. You can't really generalize about men — some men objectify woman with or without the ads. Others don't. It's not a matter of ads, it's a matter of the mental state of a specific man. More intellectual men do not see women as objects because they enjoy their company intellectually as much as physically. When they look at a "sexist" ad for them it refers to woman's physical being without demeaning their intellect.

Tom: Do you think overt sexuality in advertising has peaked? Can it go any further? Does it have to keep getting more intense, to shock and awe cynical viewers?

Ivan: You can see sexy ads peaking in Russia — everything is sexualized, and it's boring. They have no shock value anymore. The next frontier is religion. That still has a shock value.

An interesting exchange, both professionally and culturally. (Ivan is Hungarian, I am English Canadian.) I found his opinion logical and confidently sex-positive in that particularly European manner, while at the same time realizing that there are many conflicting ways of looking at the issue — philosophical, sociological and otherwise — that my readers may want to add below.

Mostly, I just love the fact that it's so easy to share these opinions.

Thanks, Ivan.


  1. Hey Tom—this is a great post. Your characterization of Ivan's responses is perfecto. Which suggests that a generally more 'sex-positive' outlook, and psyches more free of hangups and reservations, would lead to more adventurous use of sexiness in advertising, and then less debate about it.

    Nice work.