Does sex still sell?

Doing anything in East Africa these days means spending a long time stationery on our crowded roads. Even if you have a driver – and I don’t – you rarely manage more than two city centre meetings a day. So, there’s plenty of time to look around and lots of opportunities for surprise.

So there I was last Friday, minding everyone else’s business, when a billboard surprised me. It wasn’t the usual kind of billboard surprise that makes me shout out loud or shed tears of laughter. (The kind approved by someone who doesn’t understand the medium).

No, this was a surprise that made me think, because it came from a marketing organisation that really understand both the message and the medium. Coca-Cola. Global marketing leaders with a heritage of more than 125 years.

So, Coke has returned to sex as a selling tool. Or more accurately, sensuality. Their new ‘Taste the freshness’ campaign features an approximately dressed, beautiful young girl touching the iconic glass bottle to her lips.

It’s a very powerful image, carefully cast and expertly photographed. Granted, the girl is a very Western take on modern African beauty. But this is almost certainly a global campaign with carefully prescribed creative parameters.

So has one of the world’s leading consumer brands re-evaluated sexuality as a persuader?

As ever, this is an issue that divides the plant. Only last year Robert Lull and Brad Bushman published in the journals of the American Psychological Association the findings of a study into the impact of sex and violence in advertising. From 53 experiments on 8,489 people they concluded that sex never helps brand memory: either it has no effect or it causes damage. They deduced that as sexual imagery attracts our primal instincts for reproduction and survival, the brand is sidelined as passions rise.

But the conclusions also suggested other possibilities. They found that overtly sexual content in ads does detract from brand esteem (remember this was a US study) but has no negative impact on sales. They also found that where sexually charged ads were aired in a thematically congruent context – for example during an episode of the TV series Game of Thrones – brand memory and buying intentions increased.

Not that I saw the billboard in a thematically congruent context –I had been in traffic for two hours and was unmovable.The earliest known use of sex in advertising is by the Pearl Tobacco brand in 1871, which featured a naked maiden on the pack. In 1885, W. Duke & Sons inserted trading cards into cigarette packs that featured sexually provocative starlets. Duke grew to become the leading American cigarette brand by 1890.

My own initiation into the world of sexual ad content came in my first job in the beer category. Back in the 1960’s, the company had invested in a very expensive process to reproduce colour photography on beer tins. They began innocently enough with landscapes of Scotland, but when those ran dry they featured tourism images from across the UK. One of these was a picture of Nelson’s Column on London’s Trafalgar Square. To communicate scale, the photographer placed a miniskirted model at the base of the column. On the actual tin she was 4mm tall. But the brand’s biggest drinkers were to oil workers in the Gulf, deprived of female company and quite frankly in a congruent context. The resultant postal avalanche demanded more of the girl and … more girls. The lightly clad Tennent’s Lager Can Girls remained a powerful brand property until the mid 1990’s.

Italian clothing company Benetton gained worldwide attention in the late 20th century for its saucy advertising, inspired by art director Oliviero Toscani. He started with multicultural themes, tied together under the campaign “United Colors of Benetton” then became increasingly provocative with interracial groupings, and unusual sexual images, such as a nun kissing a priest.

Calvin Klein Jeans spent time at the forefront of this movement to use sex in advertising. Their first controversial jeans ad showed a 15-year-old Brooke Shields saying: “Want to know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

In contrast to Lull and Bushman, the research firm Gallup (better known for political polling) has reported that in more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness, it has found the use of the erotic to be an impactful communications technique, “although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique … handle with care … seller beware.” This research has led to the popular idea that “sex sells”

Some research indicates that the use of sexual images of women in ads negatively affects women’s interest. A study from the University of Minnesota in 2013 clearly showed that women are not attracted except in the case of products being luxurious and expensive.

Ad Age has published a list of Top 100 most effective ads of the last century. Only 8 involved sex.

And to bring us up to date, Unruly Media’s viral video tracker lists the Top-20 most viewed car commercial virals. Only 1 uses sex, while the No.1 spot was held by VW’s “Fun Theory” campaign.

Of course, most of my references here are to markets outside Africa. So it remains to be seen whether consumers here will connect with the latest refreshment of brand Coca-Cola.



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