It’s become an embarrassing problem. I will be taking my occasional Facebook break from studying in the Knowledge Center when, all of a sudden, a video for “cheap undies” will pop up on my feed. The “advertisement” shows nearly-naked men dancing around in thongs most women would find too revealing — a testament to advertisers’ belief that any gay man will buy underwear on a muscled body.
I quickly scramble to scroll past the video in hopes that nobody saw the soft-core porno that would put even “50 Shades of Grey” to shame. Not only was the content of the ad embarrassing — it was downright offensive. Advertisers assume that consumers are so shallow, they will immediately run out and buy a pair of underwear just because we saw them on a sexy model. From underwear to vacation villas and everything in between, it seems that advertisers have decided that the only way to break through the white noise of targeted Facebook ads is through sex — and lots of it.
We’ve all heard the famous phrase, “Sex sells,” but in a time of viral marketing and developing new media, it’s time to ask ourselves: Is sex really the best tactic in advertising? As the changing landscape of media reveals: no, sex isn’t working like it used to anymore.
As AdWeek professional Robert Klara points out, the first major TV spot to rely on sex was the 1973 “Let Noxema cream your face” campaign, which featured Farrah Fawcett rubbing Noxema shaving cream on Joe Namath’s face. The eyebrow-raising commercial caught quite a bit of attention for its risqué double entendre, and while some were offended by the content, the spot was mostly revered for its success in creating brand awareness.
Since then, all kinds of brands have used sex to sell their services. Despite hamburgers and Internet domains being two of the least sexy things on earth, it has not stopped Carl’s Jr. or Go Daddy from using blonde bombshells in tight clothing to market their products. However, recent analysis reveals that the attention brands receive from sex appeal does not typically drive consumers to buy a product.
In 2013, the Association for Psychological Science released a study that claimed women hold negative perceptions of sexy advertisements, which can be pretty damning to a brand’s reputation. For example, Nielsen recently claimed that 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers are now women, which means many brands are isolating almost half of their market on the most important day of advertising each year.
With that said, however, some major companies have started to recognize the growing distaste for sex appeal in advertising. You may have noticed an overwhelming culture shift during the 2015 Super Bowl as many brands repositioned themselves, choosing to capitalize on emotional and comedic appeal instead of sex.
Go Daddy, which usually highlights sexy, scantily-clad women, used a new approach this year for the Super Bowl by satirizing Budweiser’s emotionally-driven puppy commercials. Although the spot never aired due to some backlash about the commercial’s puppy mill concept, it demonstrates a new era of more creative and unique advertising.
Creative teams are starting to warm up to the idea that there are more effective ways to reach audiences than through explicit content. Some of the most highly discussed commercials this year were focused on empowerment (Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign), comedy (Snicker’s “The Brady Bunch” commercial) and drama (Nationwide’s “Make Safe Happen” campaign). All three of the aforementioned examples overshadowed Carl’s Jr.’s “All Natural Burger” spot, which featured model, Charlotte McKinney walking around in the nude with a burger.
Carl’s Jr.’s commercial was not creative, groundbreaking or even interesting. The spot intends to catch the viewer’s attention simply because McKinney is naked — an identical strategy that has been used by Motorola, PETA and Go Daddy during the Super Bowl in years past. Carl’s Jr. missed an incredible opportunity to employ unique, attention-grabbing advertising, instead choosing to spend a major chunk of the year’s media budget on an ad that has been done time and time again.
Admittedly, there are certain products that require some discussion of sex in their branding, (condoms, lube, etc.), but the list remains relatively short. Brands that seek to create a non-existent connection between sex and their product ultimately ignore the demands of consumers these days. Millennials’ social media feeds are so saturated with sexualized images and uninspiring creative work; to break through these days, brands need to rely on new methods of advertising such as stunt marketing, viral marketing and exceptional creative content.
There will always be a community of people that are persuaded by sex, but they are dying breed. It is critical for creative professionals to adapt to the needs of the ever-changing technological age if they intend to stay relevant. Instead of focusing on which celebrity is best to sexily eat a hamburger, advertisers should focus on standing out and using media in groundbreaking ways.
After all, I would probably be more inclined to buy a pair of “cheap undies” if I saw them in an unconventional place than on the unrealistic bodies of hot models. We’re a generation of free thinkers and creative minds, so it’s time companies start treating us that way.
Daniel Coffey studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.