Monday, December 31, 2012

A New Year's Resolution for the Ad Industry

Repeat after me: "I will not appropriate women's sexuality to sell unsexy stuff..."

This will be a hard one to keep, as long as Kate Upton keeps offering her services to the big brands. But let's put aside the feminist angle for a moment and look at this as professionals: Oversexed advertising is creatively lazy. It's borrowed interest.

On one hand, it definitely increases brand awareness, because anything that primal will cause controversy and arouse plenty of views. But does sex really sell product?

Source: via Tom on Pinterest

The intuitive answer is "yes". And science tends to back it up. A recent study at Yale showed that male capuchin monkeys shown explicit images of sex and power really did prefer “brands” associated with them. Social scientists Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein experimented on human males, and found that the more sexually aroused they were, the poorer their judgement became on matters of morals and self-preservation. The topics at hand had to do with their propensity to engage in risky and even criminal sex acts. But it's a fairly easy leap to assume that aroused men also make poor consumer decisions.

Or as Men's Health put it, "You act like a goof with the Hooters waitress, leaving a tip that doubles the bar bill. But why? Beautiful women cause a man's limbic system (the amygdala and other brain-stem structures, which are in charge of emotion) to fire up at the same time that his PFC checks out, leaving the judgment area vacant."

You'll note that much of this research has been focussed on men. What about women? The Next Web reports that "Women make or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions, and purchase over 50% of traditional male products, including automobiles, home improvement products and consumer electronics," and yet "91% of women say that advertisers don’t understand them."

That's not at all surprising. Only 3% of advertising Creative Directors are women. I can't find a reliable ratio for women Marketing Directors on client side, but I will note that the Chief Marketing Officers of CKE (Hardee's) and DirecTV (responsible for two of those Kate Upton ads) are men.

The conventional wisdom in advertising is that you can never go wrong using women's sexuality in ads, because men want them and women want to be them. But things could change fast.

In 2012, women started to show their democratic muscle. In the US Presidential election, unmarried women were a huge force in support of Barack Obama. They were mobilized by Republican statements and stances against reproductive choice. A teenager named Julia Bluhm got 86,439 people to help her demand the 17 Magazine to "commit to printing one unaltered—real—photo spread per month" as a statement about healthy body image. As a result, the magazine has made an even bigger commitment to "not alter the body size or face shape of the girls and models in the magazine and to feature a diverse range of beauty in its pages."

Does this mean that sex in advertising is on its way out? Unlikely. Women like sex too, after all. Most people are attracted to beauty in both sexes, and the promise of sexual fantasies fulfilled. But we, as an industry, can do it much better. Not just because we respect the awesome power of women's sexuality, but because we actually want our clients to succeed.

Here are some conversation-starters from Ira Kalb of the Marshall School of Business at USC:
For the many products that are not related to sex, using sex to sell them does not work. It can even backfire. A recent University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favorably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products. This study agrees with the data David Ogilvy accumulated over his long and storied career in advertising. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, he says that sex sells only if it is relevant to the subject being sold. Advertising Professor Jef I. Richards from the University of Texas says, “Sex sells, but only if you're selling sex.”

Have a look at Adrants' list of "The 30 Sexiest Ads of 2012" and ask yourself, how many of them are selling sex? It would be a daunting but incredibly worthwhile task for someone more academic than me to chart the success of those various campaigns in actual sales.

But I'm not calling for censorship of any kind. In a free market, at the end of the day, it will be up to women to organize themselves as a consumer force and decide what they are willing to put up with.

Newest Miss Representation Trailer (2011 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection) from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

Call me a prude if you like. The fact is, I consider myself a very "sex positive" person.  (Some of my readers seem to think I'm a little too "positive") I have an instinctive and an aesthetic appreciation of the diverse expressions of the female form and I respect and appreciate the women around me as equal human beings who are not only defined by their sexuality.

I just don't like the way women's bodies and sexuality are commoditized to get cheap attention for brands and products. It's not helping us have a respectful and equal society.

One of the unfortunate lessons I have learned from the internet is how easy it is for people to treat others as objects for their racism, sexism, and general scorn. I can't help but imagine the worst of them jerking off to the ad with one hand while simultaneously typing "what a dumb bitch" in the comments thread with the other. Advertising may not be the worst contributor to rape culture, but why would any brand want to contribute at all?


  1. You use sex to sell your blog on a daily basis.


    1. Right back at you, Anon. And Happy New Year. I hope whatever unhappiness leads you to masochistically follow and interact with a blog you clearly detest is overcome in 2013.