Category Archives: sex in advertising

Wired’s breasts get shaken up


Wired’s November cover features a pair of breasts. Large, looming, poke-you-in-the-eye kind of breasts. So on Nov. 10, Cindy Royal, an assistant professor at Texas State University and a Wired magazine subscriber, wrote a blog post baring the more audacious news that the tech publication rarely runs photos of women on its cover, unless they’re jokes or promoting films, and the last time Wired’s front featured a woman doing real work in technology was April 1996. Too good a story to miss, in five days the blog post has picked up more than 200 comments, including a polite response from Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, who noted women don’t tend to sell magazine covers, in fact, humans rarely do, and he’s soliciting ideas for the future. All Things D, Washington Post and The Huffington Post chimed in. Wired’s boobs are making the rounds.

We see two lessons here:

1. People remain piggish, and oinky instincts often sell. The truth, of course, is that the tech world is filled with young men and images such as this one (from inside Wired’s magazine issue) do far more to juice sales and subscriptions than Gates and Zuckerberg ever would.


Given the loving attention to detail in these photos, we suggest Wired (if we could have your attention back, please) knows exactly what it is doing. This is not to condemn Wired; visit the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble, and you’ll see most magazine covers have photos of beautiful females — at least 3 to 1 women-to-men. Greed, lust, and desire for aspirational beauty get noticed, and publishers who test every element of their covers respond with exactly what the market wants.

2. Change is possible if human communities override individual behavior. The fascinating thing about this exercise in feedback is how fast it’s moving; today is Nov. 15, less than a week since Royal published her critique of Wired’s boobs, and counterpoints have piled high. The National Center for Women & Information Technology gave Royal a link to 50 women who have excelled in IT and entrepreneurship, potentially worthy of magazine fame. Chris Anderson has moved into private email discussions with Royal over how to improve the magazine’s editorial. It may be too much to hope, but outside observers might think a real change in the magazine is possible.

If so, this is a lovely tale of how social media provides, with good writing and a touch of viral community support, a critical mass that can move society in a better direction. Royal notes that Wired is deeply influential in the tech industry; thus a series of Wired covers espousing the contributions of women to technology, and not just as gussied up sex objects, might inspire more female teens to engineering and tech college degrees, better hiring of women, more female CIOs, and future SXSW Interactive conferences filled with more than scruffy boys in T-shirts.

Unless magazine newsstand sales droop, of course; then, given human reproductive urgency and Wired’s male-skewing demo, Anderson will have to put skin back in the game.

Um, Microsoft, we hope that isn’t the babysitter


If you dig hearing people argue about the future of advertising you might like this week’s BeanCast podcast. We joined in the debate Sunday night with marketing gurus Bob Knorpp, the host; Joseph Jaffe of Crayon; Edward Boches of Mullen; and James P. Othmer, author of Adland. One key question that emerged was if advertising, including direct marketing, is really an “impression currency” that is being devalued as consumers learn to share their own content, how can marketers possibly make advertising work?

We think it comes down to three choices: Marketers can try to improve targeting (with sharper media buying and ad performance measurement); they can try to improve relevance (with product attributes, design, or creative that tell real stories vital to real people’s lives); or they can increase shock value.

The shock option explains why users of Microsoft Office will have hot dates with women who put their hands in your lap.

Burger King: Why unsettling ads work


Yes, this is a real ad by Burger King, and its sexual imagery has pundits screaming foul. Slate calls it shameless, Gawker calls it desperation, and even Alex Bogusky, head of Burger King’s U.S. agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, took time to tweet that his shop didn’t do this job. Turns out the ad was created by a separate team and is running over in Singapore.

As rude as many find this, it also resonates. Burger King mentions on Twitter more than tripled Wednesday, mainly among the influential marketing and advertising crowd. Blogs everywhere are chatting up the campaign — and the sandwich will certainly stick in your mind. Sex and violence have been used in advertising for decades to break through to consumers’ memories; other work for Burger King uses the creepy King figure rubbing women’s backs on the beach to tingle your mind somewhere between hunger, lust and fear. Psychologists know that human memory is heightened in times of emotional stress; freaking out people makes a lasting impression. Shock enough and Ad Age and Entertainment Weekly give you a call.

We call this a backchannel buzz strategy, where the creative is designed to startle viewers and also build scandal across other media. You’re seeing more of this lately because the internet makes it possible; web sites and social media don’t have broadcast standards, so shocking materials can spread like fire there even if seen or mentioned only briefly on CNN or The New York Times. Run a horrid ad once, cross the line, take it down — yet it will reverberate for weeks online, and if you’re lucky go viral to millions.

Ballet plus sex. What, are you listening now?


While you probably love the big-screen TV in your basement, local theater companies are hoping for a blackout. Performing arts are being hammered by the perfection of home entertainment plus sucky economy.

Smuin Ballet in San Francisco is fighting back with a series of Bay-area ads by the Evolution Bureau agency. The creative combines ballet with something else — a dose of sex, Broadway, electric guitar. Ballet isn’t stuffy, you see — it’s buff men and sultry women in revealing clothes.

Hm. When people don’t get your product, it’s not bad to connect it to something they surely want. Via Angela Natividad.

Reader’s Digest porn


We could debate all day whether this photograph of a topless woman cupping her breast is simply photorealism of cancer self-examination or the explicit depiction of sexual subject matter with the sole intention of boosting newsstand sales. Reader’s Digest is still the best-selling magazine in the U.S., with circulation above 10 million; when such a conservative pub takes its top off, you know magazine publishers are feeling pressure.

The real story of course is how sexual stimulation is the ultimate fallback in grabbing human attention, no matter how much we think we’ve evolved. Humans are still mammals awash in hormones. The Family Safe Media watchdog group estimates there are 68 million daily searches for pornography online, accounting for 25% of all search engine requests. Provocative nudity has been used to sell products since at least 1871. There’s nothing new here; just ask the 1930s’ Rockford Varnish Company. Good luck, Reader’s Digest, getting that circulation up.

With ratings down 23.9%, MTV sexes up

You can almost hear the executives at Viacom, MTV’s parent anticipating an 8% slide in operating income in 2009, pound the board table shouting: GIVE US MORE SKIN!

MTV’s audience ratings are down 23.9% in fourth quarter 08 vs. the year prior. The masses of teens are moving from TV viewing to web sites, social media and mobile, so MTV is tarting up new reality shows such as “A Double Shot At Love” where bisexual twin women in tiny bikinis try to decide whom to have sex with. We like the subtle promotion where one hints she has an extra part. The twins’ last names — we can’t make this up — are Ikki.**

Now, dear prudes, let’s pause and consider the Darwinian pressure on content producers to evolve sexual content — because sex still works. In 2008 we saw beavers selling Kotex feminine products in Australia, animals lap-dancing for Orangina in the UK, Calvin Klein baring Eva Mendes‘ breasts, and our personal over-the-top favorite: A Burger King paper tray liner showing cartoons of vegetables cavorting in a red light district. The Kotex-beaver spot drew howls of protest when it first launched but later was credited with capturing 2% more share of Australia’s $250 million tampon market … in just a few months.

Hypersexed advertising also creates a halo effect of public relations, as media tut-tuts over the supposed scandal and provides millions of dollars in additional free advertising. Some of today’s best agencies, such as Crispin Porter, practically build in “public scandal” as a second line on every advertising media plan.

Finally, offline media must compete with the no-skin-barred online world, in which full nudity (as in this promotion for Elave) can be used in videos and sent around with no FCC to stop the message. Sex sells. Sex creates PR. And heck, the online competition uses sex everywhere. It all adds up to more provocation in the year ahead as mainstream media advertisers get desperate for a little more consumer love.

** CORRECTION: Our agency has an eyewitness account from Sarah Ely, who notes the MTV twins’ names are Rikki and Vikki, hence the double-K Ikki. “In the first episode the challenge was for guy and girl teams to lick frosting off of mannequins. They were at it for like two hours.” Now we must tune in!

Sex in advertising update: Um, beavers work

Yes, this Kotex TV spot by Sydney ad agency The Brandshop drew hundreds of protests when it launched earlier this year promoting feminine products via a woman palling around with a beaver. Kotex now reports the ad was wildly successful, capturing 2% more share of the Australian $250 million tampon market in just a few months.

Other Australian advertisers are taking note. The Advanced Medical Institute has launched a new nasal inhalant solution for male erectile dysfunction with billboards subtly titled “Bonk Longer.” In a down economy, provocation gives sales a lift.

Recession is here. So why are sex sales up?


Call it a new form of cocooning. With financial markets in the tank, most retailers face a pinch this holiday season — but sellers of intimate-related goods are finding, well, a good time.

In New Zealand, Wendy Lee, director of the sex gear retail chain Dvice, says sales are up about 20% this year with consumers moving to more expensive, big-ticket items (whatever those might be). In England, sales of Durex condoms are up 22%, making us wonder whether Brits are cuddling in fear or just trying to avoid the high cost of children. And sales of lacy things remain strong in the U.S., with a Forbes analyst noting Victoria’s Secret should be immune to the spending declines afflicting other clothing retailers. Lace, it seems, does well no matter how cold the weather.

The only dark cloud on the intimacy front is Hugh Hefner may be laying off bunnies at the Playboy mansion. The UK Telegraph wrote, “Hefner has been advised to cut back on staff … to cope during the global economic turmoil.” Apparently when faced with reality, consumers want to do more than just read about it.

Orangina’s beastly ad shakes up UK

Noah never saw this coming. Orangina’s hyper-sexed ad, featuring animals lap-dancing until juice explodes, is drawing protests in the UK now. Parents say it’s a kids’ drink so how could owner Dr Pepper Snapple Group think this is appropri…

Oh, wait. Got us again. This is yet another example of dual-standards advertising, in which a company seeking online buzz pushes too far in the mass media, then protests — what? offensive? we’re sorry! — while the blogosphere latches on and amplifies the message. This approach seems especially effective for brands trying to reposition themselves to the teen/young adult market, most likely to send the message viral.

Don’t believe us? The Orangina ad ran in France in 2007 and quickly was scorned by Adweek as a freakiest ad of the year. Now, eight months later, it’s rolled out in stalwart England?

Recent players in this whoops-don’t-watch-but-please-pass-along space include Calvin Klein, Burger King, JC Penney, and Miley Cyrus. Though no one beats Cadbury back in 1969.

Sexuality and death: What to expect this fall shopping season

So you’re going about your way and an ad with sexy wrestling women catches your eye. Why?

Psychologist Carl Jung suggested that humans seek fulfillment across several common stages of life — courtship, parenting, preparing for death. The world is confusing along the way, so we fall back subconsciously onto “archetypes” — deep-rooted themes that help us understand the information around us. There are event archetypes, such as birth and death; role archetypes, such as father, child, hero, trickster; and broader themes such as the Apocalypse.

Which brings us to sex and violence. The reason so much advertising titillates is more than lust (most women consumers won’t long after the models in the above ad) or fear (we get that the fighting is staged). Instead, images of courtship/sex/mating/death resonate with the most compelling archetypes in our psychology. If you think honestly about your own life, the most powerful memories you retain belong to the first heavy date, the conception of a child, the first time you felt the vertigo of love, the phone call telling you your dad has died.

If sex is more than an itch, but instead signals archetypes tied to survival, then sensuality provokes response. If death is our inevitable end game, then violence resonates deeply.

All of which explains why women in this French Connection spot try to kill and kiss each other.

Via Yves Van Landeghem.