Close-Up: Does sex still sell in advertising?

As ads fight for attention in a changing society, how wise is it to play the sex card, John Tylee asks.

King of Shaves...overtly sexual film reflects less inhibited times
King of Shaves...overtly sexual film reflects less inhibited times

Sex, like nostalgia, isn't what it used to be. Not least in advertising. Those Manikin cigar commercials of three decades ago featuring T-shirted girls cavorting in the surf seem positively prim by comparison with the underwear-clad temptress in a new King of Shaves online film who becomes every bloke's wet dream.

Even before the days of the Manikin beauties, sex always sold, albeit much more subliminally. The subtext of most washing powder ads was that freshly laundered clothes increased your pulling power.

In these far less inhibited times, sex in advertising has become significantly more overt. Or, as one leading creative director puts it: "The gloves are off."

Besides the King of Shaves spot, there's Grey London's "Impatience is a virtue" film for Samsung featuring semi-clad girls frolicking in a swimming pool, as well as Anomaly's "be stupid" poster ads for Diesel, two of which have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

And heaven knows what's to be made of the Orangina film by Fred & Farid Paris in which a black panther with a woman's body forces a semi-naked overweight businessman to dance as she whips him.

The more cavalier approach to sex in advertising has been brought about by the convergence of two phenomena. One is a more relaxed social attitude. "Sex no longer has to be dressed up as romance," Nils Leonard, Grey London's executive creative director, explains. "Today, it's OK to talk about it."

High fashion and fine fragrance brands have been the logical pioneers of the new devil-may-care approach to advertising. None more so than Gucci, which caused a furore with its 2003 ad showing a woman pulling down her knickers to reveal her pubic hair shaved into a G shape.

The other phenomenon is the ever-growing competitiveness of the market. "We can't get people's attention in the way that we used to, so sex will always be a useful weapon," Craig Mawdsley, the joint head of planning at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says. "It's inevitable that there will be more of it and that it will get more explicit."

Media fragmentation is fuelling the trend. Today, a raunchy film can draw people's attention like a magnet. "A good viral attracting 17 million hits beats TV any day of the week," Leonard insists.

Nevertheless, although sex has always sold - and probably always will - it seems highly unlikely that communication channels will become clogged with ads extolling the pleasures of the flesh.

For one thing, only certain advertisers can play the sex card, a lesson some have yet to learn.

"It's a trap too many advertisers fall into," Trevor Beattie, the creative driving force behind the Wonderbra "hello boys" and fcuk campaigns, says. "There's nothing wrong with it if the product being promoted is intended to enhance your sexuality - but not for toilet rolls or salad cream and probably not even for cars."

For another, there will always be limits to what advertisers can get away with as they turn from TV to the internet. Parental filters will prevent a lot of material being watched by those who shouldn't have access to it. What's more, promotions on Facebook and Google count as paid-for ad space that must comply with the CAP codes.

In the end, though, it will be consumers who set the boundaries. "People may be much more relaxed about sex," Paul Lawson, the Leo Burnett group managing director, says. "But they will still jump on something they think oversteps the mark."


Craig Mawdsley, joint head of planning, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"Sex will continue to sell because we're having to compete more fiercely for people's attention than ever before as media fragments and we have to find more ways to get people to come to us rather than us go to them.

"Sexual content is always a good way to get people to seek you out in an internet search. But you must make sure you use it creatively. If you don't, what you do will be worthless.

"However, you have to ask what sex actually does for advertisers. It only buys you instant engagement. The big question is what you do with the people once you've got them."


Matt McDowell, marketing director for Northern Europe, Toshiba

"Does sex still have the potential to create a stir and attract attention in our over-advertised world? Yes. Does it encourage many people to go through the buying cycle? I'm not quite so sure about that.

"The big danger is that you harm your brand by cheapening it if you go about it in the wrong way. On balance, you risk more by using sex to sell than you stand to gain.

"I can't see the use of sex in advertising becoming more commonplace. Not least because the influence of social networks that heighten the danger of brands becoming associated with pornography."


Paul Lawson, group managing director, Leo Burnett

"As society has become much more familiar with sex, so things that were once seen as tawdry have become much more acceptable.

"Sex in advertising is fine if it has a winsome charm. But if it's done in a voyeuristic way, it becomes crass.

"Despite my potty-mouth reputation, I was never a fan of the fcuk campaign. It may have been a brilliant communication idea but I found it unpleasant to encounter in the street. It was much too in-your-face.

"I've always liked the Lynx work for its tongue-in-cheek approach to sex. But I think even that campaign is becoming more explicit and direct."


Nils Leonard, executive creative director, Grey London

"Sex isn't seedy any more. Since the early 90s, it's actually become a life choice for many. The fact is that people have always liked sex. That doesn't change and if you get it right in your advertising and give it real edge, the appeal is irresistible.

"Of course, it isn't right for every brand. It's a bit like turning up to a party wearing clothes in which you feel comfortable. If you're not comfortable, people can sense it.

"The limits on what's acceptable will always be set by public taste. I can't imagine my mum would ever want to watch a couple going at it."

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