Safe sex sells

I was driving on the Don Valley Parkway on a recent Saturday afternoon, when I caught a snippet of a CBC radio show featuring three of those dreadful advertising people much like ourselves only not quite as damn smart and wickedly...

I was driving on the Don Valley Parkway on a recent Saturday afternoon, when I caught a snippet of a CBC radio show featuring three of those dreadful advertising people much like ourselves only not quite as damn smart and wickedly wry.

They’d been set loose upon themselves to discuss sex in advertising. How original, I thought. You get so bummed out with the countless interviews with ad people exploring the role of food in advertising and sleep in advertising and patriotism in advertising that to have a thrash at sex in advertising should really be an eye-opener.

Just at that moment, I glanced at a billboard beside the expressway, and by gosh it was an Omega watch ad, but the dominant image was an alluring, come-hither head shot of Cindy Crawford, so I knew right away that the CBC was onto something, something big. Cindy might not know much about watches, but she knows what time it is, am I right?

One ad lady, I don’t have her name but she knows who she is said there was too much sex in advertising because sitting with her seven-year-old daughter watching TV at 8 in the evening, she was frequently embarrassed by leering or explicit content. She cited the ladies faking orgasms in the shampoo spots. It was funny in When Harry Met Sally, and it may be funny or just idiotic in support of shampoo sales. But is it going to shock, or frighten, or upset a seven-year-old? I’m certain my seven-year-old daughter wouldn’t even notice, let alone run sobbing from the room.

The ad guy, on the other hand, felt that as a country, we were ‘way behind’ most of the rest of the world in the exploitation of sex to sell stuff, and that he’s seen an Australian spot recently which was pretty obviously based on the inference of bestiality, if I recall correctly, with a pig, so duh, like, what’s our problem in Canada?

Either the same ad guy or another one gravely cautioned us against the sin of self-censorship, which is apparently a very bad trip and unhealthy for a country as all get out, and that’s mostly all I remember.

The first ad campaign I can recall that struck me as having to do with sex was the famous Wonder Bra series that featured women doing male-sexual-fantasy things in public in their bras and panties. The power line was I dreamed I (fill in the blank) in my Wonder Bra. And there’d be this weird photo of a smiling, big-breasted lady wearing a fireman’s hat and underwear, posing coyly among the fire hoses in front of a burning tenement.

You could see it if the market for Wonder Bra was 13-year-old boys, but in retrospect the campaign was either the crowning achievement of some intuitive genius who stumbled upon a now-recessive trait in mid-century women to revel in exhibitionist fantasies, or an oversexed brand manager and a compliant agency account team that simply came up with a totally freaky idea over a long lunch and never sobered up again.

Then along came the insatiable Calvin Klein who makes whoever the Wonder Bra perpetrator was look like the Pope – unless you recall the zillions of images of bums and nipples and lusting cherubim a thousand years of Popes have commissioned and plastered on every wall in the Holy See.

Twelve-year-old Brooke Shields not wearing panties under her Calvins. Brigitte Bardot at 40 doing French Government Tourist Office spots. Joe Namath wearing panty hose. The flirty neighbours in the Taster’s Choice coffee spots. Everybody in every Sandals brochure ever printed. It’s all sex, folks!

My point is, if advertising is to be about life, then advertising is going to be, much of the time, to a lesser or greater degree, about sex. It’s like oxygen. You may not be aware of it in the room, but it’s there.

As practitioners of the art of persuasion, we should encourage our clients to allow us to deploy every form of persuasion in the human psychological toolbox, appropriately. Seinfeld with no sex? Ally McBeal with no sex? Unthinkable! Yet when did you last hear of someone being seriously offended by the content of either show? Jerry Seinfeld and David E. Kelley display highly erotic and sexually charged imaginations, but they know how to write in a way that titillates and amuses, but does not offend. South Park, on the other hand, I deem deliberately and willfully offensive, if often quite funny, too.

That’s where appropriate comes in. Behaviour that’s appropriate for two lovers in a bedroom will predictably get you thrown out of most restaurants.

I think advertising can be sexy, and still have manners, in that manners are a code of behaviour, a way of making our point without offending our fellow citizens. Remember the writer who said that sex acts between consenting adults were OK if you didn’t scare the horses? Can we agree sex in advertising is OK if we don’t frighten the seven-year-olds?

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He creates this column for fun, and to test the unproven theory that clients who find the latter amusing may also find the former to their liking. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.