Consumer Insight: Silicone sisters

The rise of 'raunch culture' polarises opinion. Some call it a triumph for feminism, others believe it to be a step backwards. Which side should advertising take?

Raunch culture is, as the term suggests, all about sex. It's the idea that there's an ever-growing tribe of women, inspired by images of women such as Britney Spears, Beyonce Knowles and Paris Hilton, who are not afraid to flaunt their sexuality.

In her recent book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy argues that the US now sees raunchy images of women - on TV, in ads, in magazines - as wallpaper. Women across the land watch contestants in Big Brother baring boob jobs and fumbling under blankets and the same women hand over cash for a T-shirt reading "Let's Get Dirty" or "Studtamer".

But is it true that the UK is also drenched in a raunch culture that lends itself to advertising strategies about sex and power targeting the younger woman?

Well, we've certainly got Big Brother and seen the fumbling and the bared breasts. There's also been the rise of the lads' mags and the pushing of alcohol to women drinkers, using ladette imagery. We can't avoid the bumping and the grinding of Britney Spears in her conquest of the globe.

We've got chick lit, chick flicks, Archers, Reef and Lambrini, but there doesn't seem to be a case for a flood of raunch imagery in ads. Not yet, anyway.

Carol Pinder, the head of planning at 23 Red, believes that divided opinion over whether raunch is a good or bad thing puts advertisers off even attempting to inject it into their strategies. "For some, raunch culture is a feminist triumph; proof that modern women are in control of every aspect of their lives and totally comfortable with their sexuality. For others, it represents the sexual objectification of women by women and a step backwards for the feminist cause."

However, advertising at the turn of the century did make a major leap from the Flake girl's subtle innuendo. In the 90s, along with the rise of what was then dubbed "girl power", there was "hello boys" from Wonderbra, then Lee Jeans showing a stiletto heel threatening a man's buttocks. Not forgetting Nissan using an ad with a man clutching his crotch and the line: "Ask before you borrow it."

Dylan Williams, the Mother strategy director, recognises that "hello boys", in particular, marked a shift in female expression: "Wonderbra was about using sexuality to achieve power. Women did feel liberated and it captured the zeitgeist."

The stereotype ladettes that feature in ads for the likes of Archers or Lambrini are a colourful shorthand. "It's easy to sum up a lad or a ladette - a knowing wink, a wolf whistle, a revealing of flesh and it's done," Williams says. Given that advertisers have such a short time, maybe just 20 or 30 seconds to get their message across, it's understandable that they need stereotypes. The ladette is just one.

"The big question is how we deal with female archetypes in the population generally," Williams continues. His verdict is damning: "I think we always get it wrong."

At Hooper Galton, the planning director, Olivia Johnson, sees Wonderbra as the precursor to raunch. "It introduced raunch before it existed, which is why it caused such a furore," she says. "Until then, sexually active women were always portrayed as slightly neurotic and unbalanced - the bunny boilers and ice-pick wielders in Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction."

Johnson worked on the Dove "campaign for real women". "I can see how Dove might look like an antidote to raunch culture, but that wasn't where we stood four or five years ago. It was an antidote to the idealised definition of beauty."

The Dove campaign has been held up as an honest and refreshing portrayal of real women to appeal to real women. But others have their doubts about just how far it goes. At Proximity London, the creative director, Caitlin Ryan, makes a familiar observation: "The interesting thing is that they always use women who look surprisingly young for their age."

It doesn't take a keen observer to notice that most ad images of women for women are not raunchy, they're far more about good looks than overt sex. Even Impulse with its new campaign for Tease is still about major flirting. Though Lambrini's latest ads around the Grand National show that at least one advertiser is confident that younger women buy into a frank and up-for-it approach to sex. Part of the "Lambrini girls just wanna have fun" campaign, they showed girls eyeing up a less-than-handsome jockey, labelled a "rank outsider", as well a "firm favourite".

Johnson warns advertisers to handle sex with care or suffer the consequences.

"Sex has to be used quite sparingly in advertising, like some sort of strong seasoning. It can easily tip over into crass and naff."

The better strategy may well be to dismiss thinking about advertising and images of women as sexy or otherwise. At Topshop, the marketing director, Jo Farrelly, says: "We're not trying to do sexy as we're selling to women. It's more about an individual sense of style and attitude, being independent and free -spirited and confident."

Of course, the portrayal of women in advertising - whether raunchy or not - could possibly be helped by the presence of a few more women in creative departments. Ryan believes that this is still a root cause of poor stereotyping: "We're getting images through a male lens, one of the problems of creative departments being that they are mainly made up of men."

Williams believes that this is changing as more powerful women come into the industry and more women become the heads of planning and creative directors. But he doesn't think that this will lead to lots more credible, raunchy images. Or, necessarily, to more images of women exercising power.

"Everyone's still into guys in charge or girls in charge, yet if you go into any pub you'll see guys and girls hanging out together. It's a much healthier and more relaxed relationship."

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