Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Banking on titillation: the use of sex in advertising

Banking on titillation: the use of sex in advertising.

"Sex sells" is one of the most trite maxims in the advertising world. But the academics whose essays appear in Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase's anthology, Sex and Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 294), delve into the seductive world of advertising and present fresh and interesting takes on the hackneyed mantra.

The editors of the book are to be commended for assembling a group of top thinkers in the field of communications.

The first gem contained within the pages of the anthology is a chapter entitled "What is Sex in Advertising? Perspectives from Consumer Behavior and Social Science Research," written by Tom Reichert. The chapter serves as a perfect introduction to the book by defining the different categories of erotic appeal--Nudity/Dress, Sexual Behavior, Physical Attractiveness, Sexual Referents (allusions and references to sex) and Sexual Embeds (subliminal sexual messages)--and explaining the main motivation behind using salacious images to sell products: to grab consumers' attention and make them associate a particular product with being more sexy and, in effect, having more sex.

In his essay entitled "Historical and Psychological Perspectives of the Erotic Appeal in Advertising," Juliann Sivulka explained that sex has been used as a means to attract attention and promote consumerism since the beginning of time.

Though the anthology is actually separated into four sections--Research Approaches, Consumer Responses, Cultural Impact and Interpretation and Contexts and Audiences--it is essentially divided into two parts: practical advice for the advertising professional--which is comprised of statistics, study conclusions and technical tips--and socio-cultural theories, which should be enthralling to a wider demographic, beyond advertising execs.

One chapter that could act as a tool for any advertising exec is entitled "The Effects of Sexual Appeals on Physiological, Cognitive, Emotional and Attitudinal Responses for Product and Alcohol Billboard Advertising." The essay documents studies conducted to determine the effectiveness of the insertion of sexuality into various ads (e.g., ads that feature alcohol and cigarettes). The results explain which demographics are likely to respond positively to carnal commercials, and which products, when combined with sexual imagery, elicit an arousal response.

The section of the anthology devoted to socio-cultural explorations of sex in advertising includes two particularly captivating essays. In "Advertising and Disconnection," which explores the role of sex in modern societies, Jean Kilbourne argues that, though inundated with sexual imagery in advertising and across all media, the average person has become completely disconnected from the act of sex. Kilbourne explains that the kind of sex typically portrayed in today's ads is passionless and inane, featuring models that seem bored out of their minds communicating the misconception that sex is a waste of time. She quotes a frightening statistic in which one in four women between the ages of 18 and 29 report being disinterested in sex. Kilbourne blames overtly carnal advertising for being guilty of the same sin as pornography--of making sexuality disconnected.

Another fascinating article, entitled "Subliminal Sexuality: The Fountainhead for America's Obsession," deals with the controversial subject of subliminal or embedded messages in advertising. Author Wilson Bryan Key throws a series of punches at a field unwilling to accept the existence of subliminal sexual messages in advertising. Though he makes many an interesting argument about the prevalence of these embeds and advertisers' desire to include them, his argument would be made stronger if there weren't quite so many typos and factual errors in the essay. For instance, Key used sensual cartoon character Jessica Rabbit as an archetypal example of subliminal sexuality but referred to the movie she appears in incorrectly as Who Killed Roger Rabbit, rather than its real name, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But it's unfair to blame Key entirely for such oversights, as the responsibility for fact checking and copy editing lies with the editors. Unfortunately, there are lapses in copy-editing throughout the book, which is distracting.

However, the strength of Key's argument is in his detailed analysis of actual advertisements--something that he shares with many of the authors. They often dissect common advertising images (one that comes to mind is the Famous Absolut Kurant ad, featuring a garter clip in the shape of a vodka bottle) and manage to draw attention to certain aspects that the average consumer might miss.

The essays deal closely with the issue of gender representation in advertising, including the recent emergence of advertising aimed at and featuring gays and lesbians, in an essay entitled "Masculinism(s) and the Male Image: What Does it Mean To Be a Man?" Barbara Stern attributes the increasing popularity of the "macho" man (the muscular, rugged-type guy) in advertising to the emergence of feminism, gay rights and African-American rights, among other things. She also marks the end of the "penis taboo," i.e., the inclusion of the penis in advertising, as a significant development in society's mass representation of masculinity.

Another quality that the book appropriately boasts is its comprehensive coverage of almost every advertising medium, with essays that cover sexuality in print, billboard, TV and even an entire chapter devoted to the relatively-new and under-studied field of Web advertising.

In the preface, Reichert and Lambiase explain that "In our minds, it was time for a book devoted to reviewing and advancing understanding of the interpretations, functions and effects of sex in advertising." By compiling a fascinating anthology that appeals to both advertising execs and interested readers alike, the editors have achieved each of these goals.

Advertising Media A to Z

(McGraw Hill, pp. 337), by Jim Surmanek, serves as a perfect companion to Sex in Advertising. The book, though a dictionary of terms, also serves as an encyclopedia, since Surmanek included the history behind certain terms along with their definitions. The guide is an excellent resource for the non-advertising professional confused by some of the advertising terms used in the anthology, as well as for the well-versed advertising exec who may need to brush up or catch up with the fast-moving ad lingo.

The book is comprehensive and organized in such a way that a desired definition is merely a few page-flips away. Acronyms are listed alphabetically by the oft-used acronym itself as well as by the expanded spelling, making it easy to find anything you are looking for. A list of media formulas directly follows the alphabetized guide, providing plain-English explanations media advertising execs may often use but not fully understand, such as cost per point, rating and turnover point.

Surmaneck is a former ad executive who worked for agencies such as J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson.

The book covers some 2,000, terms including those used for Internet advertising and 31 formulas. It also counts a good number of new terms, such as "attentiveness" and "recency," which replaced the old phrase "effective frequency."

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