Opinion: Perspective - What now for ad industry as sex no longer sells?

I found myself once in a house of suspect, though high-class, repute.

In pursuit of reportage and experience I watched as handcuffs were snapped and whips deliciously cracked, feeling about as engaged and intrigued as a jaded viewer of one of Channel 4's seedier documentaries.

I had seen it all before, of course - albeit through a TV screen and with rather fruitier commentary. The reality had all the novelty of a Conrad Black expenses claim and was about as titillating. When pornography has become a popular mobile phone download, live sex on Big Brother barely twitches eyebrows, and naked flesh has inched down from the top shelf, sex has lost its shock value.

But has it lost its ability to sell? HeadLightVision, a WPP subsidiary, reckons so.

Its latest study, unleashed this week, claims that sexually explicit advertising has lost its potency. "Young people of today" are more interested in traditional family values and wholesome ad messages than the flash of a nipple to sell shampoo or the promise of limitless sex if your engine's big enough.

According to HeadLightVision's study, which afforded the FT the opportunity for a rare front-page headline combining the words "young", "trendy" and "sex", our youth are trying to reclaim their lost innocence. Playing bingo, collecting toys from their childhood and a lust for all things "authentic" and family oriented are the things of the moment.

There is nothing particularly shocking in such revelations. For a nation with the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in Europe and rising cases of sexually transmitted diseases (see below), sex has certainly lost its mystery. And with that has gone the ability to use sexual imagery to create stand-out; glance along the newsagent's shelves now and it's the front covers without sexy women that actually catch the eye.

Fcuk and its agency TBWA have come to the same conclusion; swearing and sexual innuendo have become impotent. If "fuck" has so little impact now, what's the point of pretending it's cool, naughty even, to almost say it? The change in fcuk's iconic ad strategy, unveiled last month, is a timely recognition of how far our sensitivities have been neutered. Sex has become such a commodity that the notion it can persuade us to purchase other, unrelated commodities has become redundant. Even five, the broadcaster that launched on a tatty raft of cheap sex, has this week emerged as a home for poetry and philosophy programming.

So where does all this leave an advertising industry that, in popular mythology, has relied on the flash of flesh to shift everything from venetian blinds to lager to cook-in-sauces? Well, open the latest, ad-flabby issue of Vogue and almost every spread is a beautiful illustration of how sex can still sell perfectly well.

The differentiators, it seems, have become subtlety and relevance. Sexual imagery must now be handled with extreme caution and any marketer in this sector, and any agency targeting an ad-and-sex weary youth market, knows this perfectly well.

But it's ironic that as the press are picking over the issue of sex in advertising, their own marketing body, the NMA, should come under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority for one of the crassest sexual advertising images of the year. The ad, designed to persuade marketers that newspapers are a fantastic advertising medium, shows a lethal stiletto heel piercing a man's body. It's all the evidence HeadLightVision needs to illustrate its point.

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