Ads tend to turn risque as markets lose tempo

Ads tend to turn risque as markets lose tempo

Sex is supposed to be always in. I, however, wonder whether some advertisers and their agencies will increasingly pump up the hormonal quotient in their ads, and even their new product development activities, as the bourses nosedive everywhere.

Hot and risqué ads are known to draw consumer attention but may not necessarily titillate consumers enough to buy. There are exceptions, of course, explaining why escape categories such as alcohol are believed to hold their own in downturns.

Just the other day, I was reading how Royal Philips Electronics NV, Europe’s largest maker of consumer electronics, is entering the $390 million (Rs1,903.2 crore) European sex toy market. Its massagers are billed as relationship care products.

If that’s not caring enough, then Levi’s latest global viral marketing effort called “Unbutton your beast" allows consumers to visit unbuttonyourbeast.com and unzip the 501 jeans to finally reveal a talking crotch critter. They can create and send their own beast from an array of Paul the Pincher, Sock Nasty, Honky Tonk Hank and Saucy Sal, then add a pre-recorded message or record their own.

There’s also a meltdown in some weight watcher ads these days, with messages that encourage you to lose the fat in order to increase your libido.

None of these efforts may be directly inspired by the global financial meltdown and may just be business as usual. In general, though, people tend to either focus on short-term efforts, such as brand promotions, over long-term brand-building efforts or use sex or the risqué in advertising more in downturns, agrees M.G. Parameswaran, executive director and CEO, Draftfcb+Ulka.

However, consumers are looking for positive messaging in downturns, he adds. Main Street and Madison Avenue appear to be at odds with Wall Street. Witness the infamous hemline theory which, according to Wiktionary, is the informal notion that stock market prices move in the same direction as the hemline of women’s skirts; short skirts indicate a bullish market and long skirts a bearish one.

Of course, one could argue that marketers using sex in their brand advertising hope to reverse consumer (and hence purchase) repression.

Creative trends are about seasons and sometimes change for change’s sake. Global marketing guru Al Ries tells me that the use of sex in advertising is more a question of fashion than anything else.

“By that, I mean that it rises and falls at regular intervals. Advertisers are always looking for the new and different," says Ries. “If there has been an interval with little sexual symbolism in advertising, then there’s an incentive for advertisers to use it. Then when there is a raft of sexual ads, advertisers switch to other means to attract attention." However, effectiveness is another matter, says Ries. “I think that sex (in ads) only works when the product itself is seen as one that involves sexual attraction. Perfume and clothing, for example."

It’s true that brands operating in the playgrounds of luxury, lifestyle and apparel have always played the sex card, and at times, quite tastefully and strategically. A 2005 paper titled Does Sex Sell? by Sven Olsen, executive vice-president of agency FCB Europe, however, explains how sex in advertising has its limitations:

1. Sex is a generic need

2. No one can have a monopoly on sex

3. You cannot brand sex

4. Sexual imagery short circuits the intellectual process

5. When sex is around, the brand plays gooseberry

6. Sex has little relevance unless it is key to product performance

The last point makes me wonder how skimpily clad women are key to the performance of our various auto, home appliance, switch and faucet brands.

The Olsen paper rightly notes that successful advertising is about the power of ideas and this point is driven home with the query, “How many ideas have you seen in a porn film?"

Still, the paper mentions two instances where sex helped sell a product. Wonderbra’s provocative ads are cited as an example of sensuality being used to brand an attitude.

Sexuality can also brand a moment—super premium Haagen Dazs strongly planked itself as an adult ice cream with a series of sensual ads created by agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty in the UK. The series showed couples enjoying the ice cream with copy such as “body and texture", “feel me", “intense fresh", “lose control", among others, and the final lick: Haagen Dazs. Dedicated to pleasure.

Sex became an analogy for sensual indulgence and the brand became the best-selling premium ice cream in Britain within a short while. Quite a feat, since these were the difficult times of the early 1990s.

Yes, successful advertising is about the power of ideas, taken forward by brilliant and tasteful execution. And, as I see it: Sex or the markets, either way we’re all burning.

Marion Arathoon is Mint’s advertising editor. Your comments are welcome at advalue@livemint.com

Also ReadMarion Arathoon earlier columns