BUSINESS

THE HOT SELL

ADVERTISERS ARE USING MORE SEX TO SELL THEIR WARES DESPITE SOME PUBLIC CRITICISM

JOHN DALY June 12 1989
BUSINESS

THE HOT SELL

ADVERTISERS ARE USING MORE SEX TO SELL THEIR WARES DESPITE SOME PUBLIC CRITICISM

JOHN DALY June 12 1989

THE HOT SELL

BUSINESS

ADVERTISERS ARE USING MORE SEX TO SELL THEIR WARES DESPITE SOME PUBLIC CRITICISM

They are among the most arresting images on television. In the latest in a series of provocative commercials for Beemans chewing gum, the camera passes slowly over a series of taut female bodies clad variously in clinging blue-and-pink dresses, a blue bikini and form-fitting jeans. The sound track is the song I’m a Man. At the end, an announcer says, “Some things in life you just can’t forget,” and, as a pack of gum appears, he adds, “This is another.” Elsewhere, in Pepsi-Cola Canada Ltd.’s advertisements for 7Up, the camera lingers over the lithe buttocks of the young female coach of a children’s baseball team, while a voice in the background sings, “Are you up for it?” And now, Labatt Breweries of Canada has unveiled a commercial for its new Dry beer that consists of little more than water being tossed over a

series of buxom female torsos in bath_

ing suits. Like many members of women’s advocacy groups and a growing number of his colleagues in the advertising industry, Robert Hawton, vicepresident and creative director for Toronto-based McKim Advertising Ltd., has criticized sexually aggressive promotions such as the Dry commercial, which he described as nothing more than “a wet T-shirt contest on television.”

But while they condemn the gratuitous use of sexual images, advertising industry executives and their critics alike also predict that advertisements aimed at young male consumers— who still dominate the markets for products ranging from beer to auto parts—will continue to become more explicit. For their part, advertisers and agency executives say that they have to use graphic, sexually charged

images to capture the attention of the so-called grazers—people with remote channel-changers who flip to other programs during commercials—and to attract buyers who are bombarded by hundreds of product promotions every day. Still, even advertisers acknowledge that by being more sexually explicit they are risking a backlash against their products.

Declared Labatt executive vice-president Edward Stewart: “You are always trying to walk the ground between what is socially acceptable and what will sell your product.”

Other advertisers are so sensitive about the issue that they proved unwilling to discuss the matter at all. Timothy Scott, the group product manager in charge of Beemans for Adams Brands Manufacturing, a division of Warner-Lambert Canada Inc., declined to be interviewed by Maclean ’s, saying that there was “not a lot of upside for us” in submitting to questions. Executives at SevenUp, who are trying to sell their product with

some of the most suggestive sexual images on television, also declined to be interviewed.

The advertisers, and the agencies that they _ employ, have been on the defensive for the past decade after a study of sex-role stereotyping begun in 1979 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). In 1981, it recommended that the industry police itself, and it drew up a set of voluntary guidelines, which are administered by an advisory panel of the Canadian Advertising Foundation (CAF). The increased scrutiny has had some effect. Adams Brands reduced the number of scantily clad models in an earlier series of Beemans commercials—which it launched in 1987—following written complaints lodged by Vancouver-based MediaWatch

and other women’s advocacy groups with the CAF and the CRTC. The same groups also complained about the 7Up series last year, but they have had little impact.

At the same time, as they have faced greater regulatory pressure, advertisers have also confronted a rapidly changing marketplace in which women make up a growing percentage of the consumers of all products. As a result, many traditional stereotypes have disappeared over the past decade. Nicholas Fraser, director of business development and strategic planning

for Toronto-based advertising agency Foster/ McCann-Erickson, said that ads no longer show housewives discussing floor wax over their dust mops, and chiffon-clad women have almost disappeared from the hoods of cars.

But although sex is now used to promote a much narrower range of products, advertising executives say that it is still the most powerful weapon in their arsenal. And some of them add that—despite the scrutiny of the CRTC and other concerned groups—they will have to use even more graphic images to hold their audience. Hawton said that the use of sex is most effective for those products that are consumed primarily by younger men. Like all consumers, they are bombarded by hundreds of ads every day in all forms of media, and they simply turn the page or flip the channel past most of them. And although there is almost no statistical evidence to prove it, Hawton said that it is generally accepted that explicit sexual images will get men’s attention. Added Fraser: “You have 15 seconds to break through a pack of clutter and prevent someone from hitting the

zap button”—the remote channel-changer.

Stewart said that is the reason that Labatt’s chose the sex-filled “wet T-shirt” format of its Dry commercial. He noted that the vast majority of beer is consumed by men between 19 and 35 and added, “The attractive young women are thought to appeal to their tastes.” Judith Posner, a professor of sociology at Toronto’s York University, said that sex provides an effective way to get attention, but she added, “It is also a cheap shot.” Posner said she finds the ads objectionable because they attempt to blur the distinction between women’s bodies and the product—in the end, consumers are simply buying sex.

The increasingly graphic sexual images are not aimed only at young men—sex is also used to sell a variety of products to women. Posner said that the perfume and personal-care product ads that appear in women’s magazines “are as bad as any.” Hawton added that the common thread linking most products which are promoted with sexual images is that their use affects relations between the sexes and their perceptions of one another. For her part, Posner said that she and other feminists have no objections to the appropriate use of sex in advertising. Said Posner: “Perfume by definition is a sexual product, so there is a certain licence to sell it that way.” She and other critics say that they object to images that implant unrealistic expectations in consumers about their bodies and relations between the sexes. Said Linda Choquette, a spokesman for MediaWatch: “It’s not sex. It’s the very narrow depiction of sex.”

But Fraser said that advertisers and their clients know that consumers are not looking for realism in advertising. Instead, they identify with what Fraser described as an idealized depiction of themselves and their sexuality—a fantasy. For that reason, Fraser argued that even flirtatious lifestyle advertising has a role to play. Said Fraser: “It is, in fact, a reflection of real life—at least in an aspirational sense.” He added that advertising agencies do not create trends or expectations, they follow them. But Posner and other critics argue that advertisers are leaders and not followers, and that they often prey on consumers’ sexual insecurities. Said Posner: “They try to identify a neurosis and then exacerbate and distort it.” Still, regardless of the purity of their motives, it is clear that advertisers will continue to find the lure of sex as a marketing tool simply irresistible.

JOHN DALY