Oliver McAteer
Jul 17, 2018

If sex sells, why are many marketers shy of using it well?

It's 2018, but social conditioning means sex is still taboo. Brands won't touch the subject, which experts say could be a massively missed opportunity.

If sex sells, why are many marketers shy of using it well?

Cindy Gallop is "the fucking change."

The outspoken, unabashed former BBH agency head -- who is well-known in adland and beyond -- has spent the past decade actively changing our sexscape with Make Love Not Porn (MLNP), a user-generated social sex website home for real couples, loving each other for real. No performances.

Redefining porn and how we talk about sex opens up a whole new sector for brands to market in. The trouble is, everyone’s too scared to be the first. It’s a "colossal missed opportunity," said Gallop.

"Our industry is spectacularly failing to apply as much insight, study, research and examination to this universal area of human experience, versus the extraordinary amount of effort we put into every other human attitude and behavior in every other area of life.

"It’s utterly ridiculous. I find it astonishing that brands and clients and agencies dig deep into every aspect of human attitude and behavior, but not this. Ever," added Gallop.

The mistake that this industry makes is thinking that sex only applies to sex-related products, like condoms, sex toys and Viagra, explains Gallop.

She routinely highlights the "huge number of people having a huge amount of sex in a huge number of cars" all around the world.

It’s true. An anonymous 2016 Journal of Sex Research survey of 195 men and 511 women at a small Midwestern university found that 61 per cent of men (119) and nearly 60 percent of women (303) had got hot and heavy in a car at some point during their college attendence (while parked, parents will be pleased to know). Of these 422, 14 percent said they lost their virginity in a car.

Brands must normalize sex to help the world at large

Why then, Gallop asks, hasn’t the automobile industry marketed a car with a seat specifically designed to have sex in?

Fear of what other people will think. If you’re a marketing chief, it’s fear of what the CEO will think. If you’re a CEO, it’s fear of what the board will think. If you’re a board member, it’s fear of what the holding company will think.

Fear is causing businesses to leave money on the table. But, more importantly, fear is the reason why brands are doing consumers a huge disservice by failing to help "destigmatize and deshamafiy and de-embarrass this perfectly natural area of human behavior.
"It would enormously help the world at large for our industry to normalize this in a way that makes everybody feels better about it," said Gallop.

So how would one go about marketing the sex seat from a logistical standpoint? Well, if Gallop was at the helm of Ford, she’d make it a project for the innovation team, which would be female-led. "The automotive industry is male-dominated, which is why cars aren’t even designed for women, let alone for women to enjoy having sex in," she said.

"The team would have to be more female than male because women are the primary consumers for everything, but also the primary influencers. Women buy and women share. Social media sent us a whole new methodology for us to do what we’ve been doing since the dawn of time -- sharing the shit out of everything in a way that men don’t, because we are the gossipers, we are the chatterers, we are the advocates, the ambassadors, the sharers and the brands."

She proposes a three-way partnership (no pun intended): a Millennial-focused publisher like Refinery29; MLNP and; an automotive brand brave enough to do this. Refinery29 puts a call out to their readers asking them to vote on their favorite car to have sex in. They then push safe-for-work content (the fun stories about how that one time I had sex in a Mini Cooper and the heated seat made for an unsuspecting pleasure-enhancer), while MLNP houses adult content of couples who want to go that one step further and actually demonstrate how they make love in their car of choice. The content would be sponsored by a car brand, which in turn would get all the feedback about why these cars are particularly great to have sex in. Gallop’s team would create a concept car, and she’d literally test it out herself (she stresses that part passionately). She’d launch a competition for a MLNP couple to win the first vehicle off the line.

"Not only would it create a huge buzz a newsworthiness -- it would go down a storm. I guarantee you," she persists, while acknowledging that her idea would no-doubt get laughed at by car manufacturers.

It’s not just the automotive industry Gallop bemoans: "Even more fundamentally, people have sex in bed, but the mattress industry focuses all its research and development on sleep. People have sex on kitchen counters, but the kitchen counter industry is not taking that into account when they design for height, for comfort, for width."

All missed opportunities, in her opinion. As is Unilever’s sluggish response to engage in a series of "how-to" videos in which it could, for example, utilize a tampon brand to demonstrate insertion.

Pioneers: (L to R) Make Love Not Porn's community manager Ariel Martinez, CTO Aaron Sikes, founder and CEO Cindy Gallop and COO Charlotte Reid
There is a market for the sex seat, just not in car manufacturing

Unilever ignored an approach to comment on such marketing strategies. So did mattress companies Casper and Sealy. And car brands Toyota, Ford, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Bentley and Nissan declined to comment. General Motors said it would "prefer not to participate" -- more than once. Refinery29 said it wanted to "sit this one out."

Aston Martin, however, addressed it head-on.

Simon Sproule, vice president and chief marketing officer, stressed safety must take precedence in the car business, but said the idea could have legs in the aftermarket.

"We design a product that has to meet many varied and complex legislative requirements. Most important of those is safety," he told Campaign U.S.

"Anything that deviates from creating a safe place for driver and occupants is not something we would even be able to consider. Now, there is a flourishing aftermarket in the car business."

Sproule explained that companies are peddling products which cater for pets, "but that’s probably as far as it extends." He notes that child seats, which fall under the aftermarket category, must too adhere to strict legislation in its design and how it’s fitted into a vehicle.

"Our focus is getting both occupants home to a place where they can indulge in a more suitable environment," he continued.

"It’s all very well throwing out lots of very interesting ideas, but there is a commercial reality to this and I certainly don’t see any manufacturer anytime soon getting involved in trying to engineer something that may meet [Gallop’s] ideas."

The CMO said he’s never -- in his 25 years of being in the business -- sat in on a meeting where sex is raised as a research or marketing component.

Then again, "maybe I’ve been sat in the wrong meetings," Sproule joked, concluding: "I don’t think [the idea] is grounded in any practical reality for car makers, but the aftermarket and customer personalization knows no bounds, so who knows? Maybe the aftermarket will pick this idea up."

Jason Vines, a three-decade veteran of the automotive industry where he held positions at the helm of PR across Ford, Nissan and Chrysler, said sex has historically played a role in the marketing of cars, but does not believe using such direct messaging would work today.

"Sex and marketing in the car industry has been going on forever," he said. "But if you’re going to market to have sex in cars, why don’t we do a little more marketing around texting in cars? There’s been sex in cars since maybe the 20s, but to market that wouldn’t work."

Vines says this because he was with Chrysler when he saw the marketing team devise the infamous "Concorde" TV ad that eventually got pulled. The comedic spot centered around conversation between a mom and daughter. The young girl asks her mom why she’s named "Savannah," to which mom bluntly replies: "We named you after the place you were conceived." The daughter then asks why her sister is called "Concorde," spots the name on the car dashboard and cries out in disgust.

"It was outrageous," said Vines. "How could you do that at all? How could you bring that up?"

For some, the message of a spacious interior was driven home with an innuendo too far. But this was nearly 20 years ago. Vines knows culture has shifted, and the automotive industry is still trying to shake-off the cobwebs of its past and -- in some ways -- present.

"Sex is involved in everything, but recently [advertising has] boiled down to men being dumbasses and women being smarter," he said. "It’s funny, because we are the industry that really defiled women when they came into showrooms. We treat women like crap, probably still today -- you walk [into a showroom] and you’re not treated seriously because you’re a woman."

Today, Gallop wrangles with this same "patriarchy" and society's hyper-sensitivity of sex in more ways than one.

"We fight an enormous battle to build our business every day," she said, "because every single piece of business infrastructure -- any other tech startup takes for granted -- we can’t use because the small-print says ‘no adult content.’ And this is all pervasive across all areas of the business in ways that people out of the sphere don’t understand."

MLNP’s biggest operational challenge has been the payment process -- PayPal doesn’t work with adult content.

In fact, the lukewarm reception has been so consistent that it’s taken four years to find a bank willing to help fund the business. Everything prior to its recent cash injection (in the millions, we’re told), has been pulled entirely from Gallop’s pocket.

But now she’s ready to take MLNP to the next level. Armed with 500,000 members globally -- all built organically from media coverage and search -- her 2018 goal is growth (but not before she takes a vacation, which she promised to herself the moment she secured funding).

Education now leads to "orgasmic leadership" in the near future

Rachel Braun Scherl, CEO of Spark Solutions for Growth, global keynote speaker on entrepreneurship and female leadership, and author of Orgasmic Leadership, heaps praise on the Gallop movement, but questions her timeline for transformation.

"I do think we’re making progress," Scherl said. "What I like about Cindy is she’s the one who’s so far ahead with a pretty extreme perspective, and it’s that type of bold thinking that will keep us moving.

"I don’t think we will get as far as she wants us to as quickly as possible. Where Cindy is going is like the Holy Grail. And I would never bet against her, but we have a lot of work to do to get to where we’re talking about."

Scherl explained that some companies in the incontinent space are already broaching sex as a marketing tool by encouraging women to fix the problem by strengthening the pelvic muscle which, by the way, may lead to a better experience in bed.

You have to think big to change the conversation. But more work needs to be done on education, argues Scherl.

"Less than 50 percent of states in the U.S. even require sex education," she said. "Of those, not all of them require it to be scientifically factual. We don’t have a vocabulary to have a conversation."

That means people (alarmingly young people) are being educated by porn. It’s led to an unconscious fusion of porn’s dictionary and marketing. Think about the Viagra’s of the world. This particular brand has been stocking shelves for 20 years, and inundating consumers with language that screams "bigger, longer, stronger."

"That language doesn’t apply to women," Scherl added. "They don’t think of sex as a performance sport. We don’t even have the language to have a mature conversation.

"The fear, combined with the lack of knowledge, combined with belief that might have been handed down that might not make sense any more, has created an environment where it is too terrifying to have the conversation. ‘Vagina,’ ‘labia’ or ‘clitorious’ can’t be words that people are uncomfortable with saying on TV."

The person who coined the term ‘getting her ass railed’ never got his ass railed

There’s no socially acceptable vocabulary because porn has rushed in to fill that gap. But now it has competition: stripping back the language of love is on the top of MLNP’s manifesto.

Words associated with vulgarity like "squirt" and "creampie" have been replaced with "juicy" and "succulent." Searches for "oral" on MLNP won’t offer as much as "downtown" -- the website’s word of choice for oral sex. It’s "anal" tag is actually derived from the recipient’s experience of anal: "Ow ow ow, hey now!"

"The person who coined the term ‘finger blasting’ didn’t have a vagina," said Gallop. "The person who coined the term ‘getting her ass railed’ never got his ass railed. ‘Pounding,’ ‘banging,’ ‘wrecking,’ ‘destroying’ -- all terms generated by the people who do not possess the soft internal tissue to which those things are being done."


The choice of wording is mirrored by those who watch MLNP videos (which cost $5 to rent -- half of which goes to the "Make Love Not Porn stars"). Every day, viewers write to the team and describe the films as "joyful," "adorable" and "life-fulfilling." MLNP is already changing the sex dictionary. And by doing so, it’s opening up a whole new marketing category for social and real-world sex. While big brands aren’t ready to dive in, smaller brands are beginning to flirt with it.

Brooklinen, a New York-based bedding company which arrived on the scene fairly recently, is embracing the category. Its marketing acknowledges that beds aren’t just for sleep; we get intimate in them, we argue in them, we eat in them, we seek refuge in them when ill, we share them with our pets. The brand pokes fun at this in an OOH ad currently running in Manhattan’s subway. Two photos, one of multiple pairs of feet and the words "hook-up" and the other of a couple facing away from each other during a dispute, run adjacently. Its blog, "Brookliving," showcased couples' stories straight from their bed for Pride Month. That’s real life. Brooklinen gets it.

Gallop isn’t worried that big brands aren’t on board with her idea yet because, in her mind, they will be very soon. As she routinely says: "I don’t wait for change -- I am the fucking change."

But her mission statement is more far-reaching than persuading businesses to buy into social sex and leverage it to "make a shit ton of money." Her end goal is to make sex and everything that revolves around it as natural as your weekend grocery shop. Her end goal is to stamp out rape culture. Her end goal, she says, is world peace.


Campaign US

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