In any industry, it’s helpful to have someone who is willing to question the status quo and challenge business as usual. This helps to foster innovation. In advertising, every so often a voice will pipe up and ask something along the lines of “Does sex still sell?” Short answer—yes, yes it does, and like hotcakes. Sex is likely the single greatest motivator of human behavior (and the single biggest reason this writer brushes his teeth in the morning). “People with an interest in sex” is the largest demographic on earth, so you’d be a fool to ignore its vast potential as a marketing tool…yet clumsily shoe-horning it into an unrelated product or service can be a turn-off for many, and in some cases can cause the audience to remember the image or tagline, only to forget what you’re talking about in the first place—the problem of high recall/lost message.
First, let’s look at a massively successful ad which also features a product that’s a natural fit for sexy advertising. This Wonderbra ad from their now-legendary 1990’s Hello Boys campaign meets both criteria—it was a bit shocking at the time (in fact it was toned down significantly when it transitioned from the UK to the US) but that shock is mitigated by the product itself—they are selling bras, so what do you really expect to see? The ambiguity of the tagline works well here too—is she talking to her breasts, or to us fellas, or both? It’s clever, it’s sexy (without being sexist), it reestablished the brand for a new generation of women, and it was effective: Gossard sold almost 2 million Wonderbras that year.
So clearly things like swimwear, perfume, or lingerie are natural fits for this kind of campaign. That’s not to say sex appeal cannot be used to sell products that aren’t directly related to sexuality or attractiveness—it just has to be executed properly. When it isn’t…well, take a look at this ad for canned soup. It isn’t obviously sexual, in that there are no lingerie-clad models or phallic symbols. Just three couples sitting around a table, eating soup, and perhaps eyeing each other lasciviously. Now take a look at the bowl in the center. If that still doesn’t tip you off I’ll wait here while you google “key party.” There are a few problems here, but I think we can agree the biggest issue is the glaring incongruity of sex and canned goods. To put it mildly, it’s an oddly conceived pairing, and their integration feels forced. While the ad is witty and makes me laugh, it also invites me to simultaneously consider two things: sex parties, and…canned soup. Blegh.
Now let’s take a successful, sexy campaign that’s pitching a decidedly unsexy product. I love this campaign for Downy detergent. The women are all fully clothed, but cover their naughty parts with their hands regardless, as if someone has just walked in on them nude. The hand on the open door in the foreground adds an undeniable sexual current and voyeuristic thrill; the ad is intensely sexual, without even showing any skin: And the tagline “You feel like your clothes are not there” has perfect resonance, reminding us of what’s being sold here: the detergent that will make your clothes feel so soft, you’ll forget you’re even wearing them. There isn’t any danger here of the high recall/lost message pitfall, because in order to remember the gag, the audience is forced to remember the product.
So yes, sex still sells—but not every time, and certainly not for everything. If you screw it up, it can badly damage your brand. Sexually suggestive marketing can be as polarizing to audiences as it can be captivating, so it’s important to consider whether the sexual aspect of your marketing strategy has any relevance or relation to your brand. With a product like swimsuits or bras, you can go back to the well again and again. With something unrelated, sex can be great for getting people’s attention, but eventually you are going to have to diversify your marketing plan and attempt to broaden your audience. For a current example, just look at GoDaddy today—they made a lot of noise with their boundary-pushing sexy ads in years past, but they’ve since shifted to a strategy that focuses more on their specific benefits for small businesses.
Knowing exactly how far to push the envelope is central to your success, and will of course vary from market-to-market. What sparks laughter in the south of France can spark a scandal in South Carolina, so regional familiarity is the key to knowing where the line is.