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Sex appeal in ads: the show goes on

SPECIAL REPORT BY SHALINI SETH / 31 May 2005

DUBAI - SEX is in the air. Market leaders think advertisements with sex-related images are what can sell products fast. Many are attracted to these ads, some are amused. All are not enthused, though. And, the show goes on.

The advertisement of Samsung, an electronics major, has a man holding a woman in his embrace and looking cheekily in your eyes as he photographs this in his camera, even as the woman presumably remains ignorant about the trap she's in.

The electronics company with an advertising budget of 400 million is merely following a trend, though some wryly term it as the "last resort' to sell a product. Everyone from Calvin Klein whose advertisements were pulled out as being "paedophile lure", to an obscure burger company in the US which releases what it calls 'fist girl' ads, and a local bottled water company that projected a breast image, has followed the same trend to promote their sales.

It can be incidental, as the Al Bayan water ad claims it to be, while it positioned two bottles of water in a way it resembled breasts—the attempt being to link the concept of purity of mother's milk to its brand of water. No titillation, and nothing objectionable, of course. "Take it in the right spirit", as a wag said. 

Or it can be open to benefit of doubt as a homely, goody-two-shoes brand such as Nivea promoted its products sale with a "moisture and pleasure" ad, to be followed by a less conspicuous one on mascara. Some are puzzled, and some laugh it away. The company executives are not ready to comment on the issue of hidden meanings, if any.

Samsung, the brand that raised some heat in recent days with the "embrace" ad, has spoken repeatedly of its planned, multi-million dollar strategy to position itself as "the  'must-have' brand for the young, trendy, savvy or the forward-moving crowd, which forms a good chunk of the target market."

Pop psychology would say, all advertising is attention-getting behaviour. Analysis position sex in advertising as the attempt to use classical conditioning. Says Kandarp Baxi, Accounts Director, Chase Advertising, "There is little that the product is offering that is different from others. When technological differentiation is neither noticeable nor long-lived, you need to improve the intangible experience. Put simply, the attempt is to position them to shock." Blaming it on the crowded shelves of Dubai may be an answer to this sudden rain of suggestive ads that the desert city is seeing.

Most companies avoid negative publicity. But some seek it. Calvin Klein, for instance, was known for creating free publicity by releasing and then withdrawing after protests, campaigns that featured young children or heroin addicts. The first one of these was in 1980 in which the then 15-year-old Brooke Shield, in a Lolita-like fashion, implied that she is not wearing anything beneath her jeans. Since then the company has, among other things, been accused of promoting paedophilia, drugs and anorexia. Says Design Strategist Hink Huisman, "Some consider negative communication to be the best."

There's a universality to the selling of the sex-linked images. Indian cinema icon, Amitabh Bachchan famously said, "only sex and Shah Rukh Khan sell..."

Hink Huisman, the man behind the Absolut vodka and London Dairy campaigns in the UAE, agrees to the sex part. "No matter what the product, you tend to incorporate sexuality in it. Product design is not only about the images you see. Sometimes images of a woman or sexual images are superimposed on the main image. They are not visible to the naked eye but they are there to trigger your sub-conscious responses."

So, advertising is not incidental. Sure, it depends on where the creative guy is looking for inspiration -- in life, magazines or now increasingly, in cyber porn.

But one of the things it is supposed to do is cash in on the environment. Jan E. S. Stromsodd in his lecture on Consumer Behaviour at the Wharton School writes, "Marketers generally analyze the environment on two levels - macro and micro. The former includes general, large-scale factors, as for instance an upswing or a downturn in the economy. Characterising more tangible physical and social aspects of someone's immediate surroundings, the micro environment operates on a much more local level."

CKOne, the unisex perfume, was released as a response to changes that had taken place in the social environment. When released in 1995, the product was generally considered a natural continuation to the sexual revolution. Consumers are wise to it now.

Says Shruti Kapoor, a 25 year old, "The ad that talked about moisture being equal to pleasure with two young female models sitting back to back, is riding on the cool factor of Britney and Madonna exchanging kisses. As for the webcam one, all women, not to mention parents, are now scared of small cameras being used without the subject's knowledge or consent. So there lies the inspiration!"

Sex does not always work. Brand image can actually restrict its use. Says Baxi, "Staying consistent to branding is important. Using sex to sell products which have a clean, family-oriented image violates brand trust." Nivea ads, for instance, have been known to be simple, plain and informative. Its early advertisements established the image of its consumers as clean, fresh and natural.

In fact, in the age of overdose, sex does not sell. Cadbury's advertisements in 1980s were designed to play up the phallic shape of chocolate. However, after the 80s, Cadbury changed its image from sexy to wholesome fun.

Dove, which was known to use thin, anorexic models in its earlier campaigns, saw greater success when they started 'real women'. Estee Lauder, when introducing a new fragrance to the market in late 1998, turned around the negative feedback following Calvin Klein's advertising campaigns featuring models looking like heroin addicts. The company named its new fragrance "Happy", and presented advertisements featuring young women dancing and frolicking. By mid-1999, the fragrance reached the No. 1 spot in the women's prestige fragrance category. Happy was said to have converted the consumers of fragrances as Tommy Girl and CKOne, generally purchased by women in their 20s.

Recently, the Economist reported that the use of sex has reached a saturation point. Even agencies that specialise in striking sexual themes, such as TBWA, which invented the controversial FCUK logo for French Connection, a clothing brand, acknowledge the shift in shock value.

And last year, UK's Chartered Institute of Marketing found in a survey of 1,000 people, aged 15 and older, that only six per cent enjoyed, or were influenced by sexual images in ads.

Based on research in 14 cities around the world, including New York and London, the study has concluded that young urban consumers are tired of sexual explicitness in advertising.

Another study of young consumers by HeadlightVision concluded that they found sexually explicit advertising boring and repellent. So then, a innuendo laden ad might titillate 10 per cent of the customers but will actually alienate the rest.

Consumers, after all, should have the last word. Advertising standards agencies the world over say that the dominant theme expressed in complaints submitted by consumers concern adult-themed and suggestive advertising, particularly when it reached their children through mainstream media.

In the UAE, when a daily newspaper used up a whole page with an advertisement F_ _K, readers' complaints dotted letters to editor.

Consumers need not always be vocal, they only need to let their purses speak for them.

Says psychologist, Rachana Buxani, "Youth are known to be copycats but the ad may or may not result in sales. Point is, it is irresponsible of advertisers to put a checkmark of 'okay' when something is 'not okay.' It is actually uncool."

 

 
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