Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sex Sells?

Sex! Look at that image, all sexy, alluring, drawing your eye.... for all of 10 seconds...

This article made me rather happy to read.

You’re not surprised, of course, because there’s nothing new about this. Sex has been selling products other than sex since products other than sex have been sold. The current sex-obsessed Axe body spray commercials are simply an updating of the Hai Karate commercials of yesteryear. Granted, today’s commercials demonstrate a greater corporate tolerance for pseudo-pornographic content, but that’s primarily a function of the increased difficulty of attracting eyeballs in the digital age. We’re not looser than we used to be: we’re just more desperate for attention.

So sex sells. That’s nothing new. But the use of sex to sell nonsexual products is also atell. To understand what you’re being told when you see sex in a commercial for a nonsexual product, you need to know Barrett’s First Law of Marketing:

When your product is indistinguishable from the competition, add sex.

To get real brand recognition for an indistinguishable product in a generic market you need to do something radical — like mate a partially nude, gyrating, grinding, blond bimbo to a bucket of suds, so nature can take its course with whatever demographic (dad and his wallet) you’re trying to attract. That’s how everything from toasters to antiperspirant to shoes to cars to dental floss to insurance to fast food becomes steeped in curves and innuendo. It’s not that sex sells everything, it’s that sex helps sell stuff that otherwise cannot compete on its own merits.

Which leads us to the inverse of Barrett’s First Law of Marketing:

If sex is used to market a nonsexual product, that product is generic.

To put it bluntly, sex in commercials is increasingly making companies look like desperate attention whores. Frankly, people, and young audiences specifically are getting less and less willing to buy it.

From CNN's Graphic Sex and Nudity Don't Sell at the Movies:

A recent study concluded that nudity and explicit sex scenes don't translate to success for major motion pictures.

"Sex Doesn't Sell -- nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema" examined more than 900 films released between 2001 and 2005.

The study found that, contrary to popular belief, sex and nudity failed to positively affect a film's popularity among viewers or critics and did not guarantee big box office receipts.

One of the study's co-authors, Dean Keith Simonton, said theirs was the largest sample of its kind used for film research. The results surprised him, he said.

"Sex did not sell, whether in the domestic or international box office, and even after controlling for MPAA rating," said Simonton, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. "In other words, even among R movies, less graphic sex is better."


"Nothing is as shocking anymore," Detweiler said. "You can see it in Britney Spears' kiss with Madonna and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl performance. Things that were a big controversy among some, the next generation kind of yawned at it."

This leads me to hope, I like hope, I even liked it before it was a trendy campaign slogan, and I still like it now that people hate on it because the world wasn't magically fixed by hope. While more kids want to be "celebrities" these days, and "celebrity" increasingly means "desperate attention whore" young people seem somewhat inured to the bombardment of sexually explicit imagery foisted upon them.

Like bacteria mutating to become resistant to certain types of drugs, audiences are constantly changing, and they have been exposed to enough marketing to become resistant to certain types of "extreme" attention grabs. Audiences increasingly want to interact with their entertainment and when limited thrills are all a product is offering, not distinguishing itself in any other way, there's no incentive to follow up. Audiences and Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they receive advertising and how they are lured into seats and purchases.

As I stated in my post about Jennifer's Body last year, if you aren't effectively describing what you're selling, you're not doing it right. Even something with substance can be undercut by a bad marketing campaign, and stereotyping the characters in a narrative, like that a female character is only sexual, or that a 30 year old man is only interested in football and sex, objectifies both character and audience, doesn't allow any lasting connections to be made between the two and alienates a lot of potential audience members.

These studies show once again that stereotyping, limiting the scope of what one is presenting and going for a short term eyeball grab is not building the same amount of interest or loyalty that allows a product to thrive. Especially important as generations who have seen it all and had access to it all mature, shock value and gimmicky sexualization are not the tools they once were in the arsenal of getting ones message across. Seducing, enticing, showing that there is substance beneath the gloss of an initial reaction is essential to creating a relationship with a piece of advertising, or the creation of a character that people want to engage.

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