Sex and sexism in advertising have always been a hot topic. Yes, when we see men and women in racy photos or ads (but mostly the women in ads create the outcry) we hear advocates and consumer groups picking up their pitchforks to attack the chauvinist bastards that made and approved the ad.
An article appeared on Huffington Post* about how the "sex sells" mantra is well overdone and things need to change. The author also asserted her wishes about how advertising should be, and how women should be depicted in advertising.
We would agree with her overall argument: advertising should be good. We would also agree that advertising does in fact need a shift in thinking.
However, we would draw the line at accusing advertisers and photographers of being the only culprits in this. If our colleagues were, then the shift to good stuff would be much easier.
Unfortunately, it is much easier to cast blame than to formulate solutions. So it goes.
But its not the HuffPo author's fault. And for being published in a medium known for its quasi-journalism, pseudo-tabloid, newsy-ness, the author did well in showcasing her frustration, and did dig up some pretty wild ads (i.e., the way over-the-top "shameless" ads by a suit company).
But let's get to the point. We agree that advertising should shift its focus to more creative that highlights the intelligence of the consumer. But that kind of creative doesn't catch the eyeballs, the publicity, and the "social proof" that the shocking visuals do. So until Joe Public wants to think about the advantages and disadvantages of buying a suit, we're forced to see Joe Public be mesmerized by a well-dressed man lifting the skirt of a curvy blonde.
Hey, we're not happy about it, either.
Indeed, if you talk with a lot of the creatives in the industry, this "sexy" stuff is quite boring. Why? Look at the creative process:
Step 1: Hire an attractive girl
Step 2: Pay attractive girl enough that she'd be comfortable being close to naked or do something either completely sexual, or with sexual innuendos
Step 3: Shoot ad
Step 4: Show edited ad to legal department to make sure it can run
Step 5: Show ad to horny product manager or corporate brand exec for okay
Step 6: Send ad to run
Nothing in those steps requires research, consumer data, or even creativity. And the HuffPo writer was right when she said that sexy ads score lower than smart ads in terms of purchasing, but they score higher in recall.
But recall doesn't mean conversion. Those biz-wizzes who watch the recall numbers fail to check the conversion rates.
Yes, we agree that it is a shame that boobs (sexy ads) are sexier than brains (smart creative). But in a consumption-based society, brands are much more worried about getting large impression numbers than spending the money upfront to create something smart and targeted.
Sexy ads target large groups of people. Those who study mass marketing understand that when we are targeting a large market, mediocre and average ideas need to be portrayed.
And what's more average, or primal, than breasts and butts?
Now, there are ways that a shift can be done. But it's not easy.
Solution 1. Stop buying the products that carry or produce the sexy ads. The advertising continues because purchasing continues! If every pot I molded came with a dent in it, but I sold out every time, why in the world would I fix my kiln? Businesses won't change unless you force them. Best way to do it is to stop buying their stuff.
Solution 2. Support the brands doing right. The author mentioned Aerie and the Ogilvy campaigns about telling your loved ones things you don't need to wait for. Those are decent steps. But we know some ad folks, and ads can be much better. Give those brands the support needed so we can start to drown out all the silly stuff.
Solution 3. Re-teach the consumer. This solution will actually have to accompany the others. Brands will bend to the demands of consumers. If they want breasts and butts, consumers will get them. If they see that they are actually expected to know stuff, then hopefully they will seek to know.
Changing isn't going to be easy. But since our industry or society hasn't changed, we should have known that. To take skin out of the game, it seems that we have to put ours in. But who is honestly ready to take on that challenge?
*However, if you checked out the link...did you see Katy Perry? Delightful.
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.