(Part 1 of a 2 part series)
Imagine looking at a magazine ad with a sexy, half naked girl atop a dining table, straddling a handsome Asian man who has his shirt off. It’s a jeans ad. Now imagine a low-level shot of a man pressing his body hard against a half-naked woman who is up against a brick wall of a building, the man’s flashy sports car is stopped several feet away and the car door is open—all this framed through the legs of an attractive woman in a mini-skirt. You would think this ad was selling something sex-related. Surprisingly it is an ad for truck tires.
It’s universally acknowledged that sex sells, and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you may have noticed that sex in advertising has become the most popular form of advertising throughout the world. Whether it is legal or illegal, sex in advertising is part of our daily lives.
The exact role of sex in advertising is debatable, but most people—including industry experts—would agree that getting the attention of the product's target audience is its primary goal. Although sex in advertising can be controversial or distasteful, it can also be presented intelligently as well as tastefully. Yet, one can argue, ads containing distasteful sexual imagery are more common in Asia than ads featuring tasteful sex appeal.
(Above: an ad for Chupa Chups candy from ad agency: Nongshim Communications, Seoul. Headline reads: “for adults”.)
Over the past few decades, the use of sex appeal and sexual imagery in consumer advertising has become almost commonplace. Whether it’s appropriate or not, sex has been used successfully by advertising agencies and marketers who see sexual attractiveness as a benefit of products and services, from cars to lipstick, from clothing to washing powder. As competition for the consumer gets stiffer, the fine line between creative marketing and overt sexuality is getting even thinner.
A recent survey taken on the subject revealed that about two thirds of women thought that some advertisements they were shown had gone too far in using sex to sell product. Throughout Asia, use of sexual imagery in advertising has been criticized on various grounds. Most religious conservatives consider it obscene. Some feminists and claim it reinforces sexism by objectifying the individual. In Korea, the importance given to body image in many ads has been blamed for the poor self–esteem and unhappiness among women.
(Above: an ad for Samantha Cracked Heel Lotion. Headline reads: “Sexy Heels by Samantha”, from ad agency: dentsuINDIO, Philippines)
Does sex really sell?
Actually, sex does not sell, but ‘sex appeal’ does. The most obvious reason sex appeal works, is that it grabs attention. With advertising having become more culturally relevant in Asia over the past thirty years, audiences much like their Western counterpart, have become steadily more difficult to impress. Perhaps ad agencies are running out of new elements to spice things up?
For some people in Asia, sexual imagery has become too provocative, like pin-up posters edging close to pornography. They sight huge billboard ads showing drop-dead gorgeous women wearing skimpy lingerie or swimwear, the focus being more on their sexy sleek bodies rather than the attributes of the brand itself.
(Above: an ad for Fowin’s Sexual Efficiency Ring Headline reads: “Get her back.” from ad agency: McCann Worldgroup, Bangkok, Thailand)
The level of sexual appeal in ads differs from country to country based on the beliefs and values of the cultures within the country. In many Asian countries, sexual ads are not well received—at least that is what some research would have us believe. Advertising regulations vary country-to-country, and it is often difficult to use an ad campaign with sex appeal throughout the region as it may offend cultural morals. Asia’s advertising markets are brimming with opportunities for brands, but each comes with its own local quirks and challenges. While sex is still a universal selling point, what works in the USA, France or London may not fly in India, Malaysia or China.
Perception would have it that Asian markets are quite conservative when it comes to sexual imagery. Still, the old adage that “sex sells” remains true pretty much anywhere. You just have to get the message right – for both your audience and your brand. In some Asian markets you can be a lot more direct in your appeal to sex than you can in many western countries. Marketers in Singapore, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong, for example, get away with a surprisingly overt approach to sex in advertising, providing certain sensitivities are observed. In contrast, the cultures of China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia are more traditional and talking about sex overtly is usually considered to be in poor taste.
(Above: an ad for DIY Living, headline reads: “Instant furniture. The new DIY series. In stores now.” advertising agency: Publicis, Singapore)
(Above: an ad for the Nikon S60, headline reads: “The Nikon S60. Detects up to 12 faces.” advertising agency: Euro RSCG, Singapore)
Knowing how far a brand can go comes down to understanding the culture, the unique histories and nuances of a country. In Malaysia, using innuendo and relying on the audience to connect the dots has proven to be a very engaging strategy to overcome advertising restrictions. India, at first glance, might seem like a highly socially conservative market, but their tradition of sensuality (think Tantra) means that it is possible to make sexy ads that are culturally referenced and don’t upset the censors. Brands in India continue to test the waters. While a direct approach to sex may be taboo in India, fantasy and innuendo fit within cultural norms and beliefs.
(Above, an ad for Downy: Naturally Soft, headline reads: “Naturally Soft.”ad agency: Grey Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
So what’s the takeaway? While sex appeal may sell everywhere, it sells differently depending on where you are in the world. But the real story is still “same, same but different,” because the motivation underneath it remains universal.
Some Asian countries are notoriously shy when it comes to sex, but that’s changing.
A regional-wide ad campaign using sex appeal as a platform, can cause difficulties for marketers in a region as vast as Asia, from liberal Japan, where almost anything goes on TV, including nudity, to Malaysia where ads can't show a woman's bare back. Images that would be innocuous in some countries are deemed too provocative due to deeply engrained social and cultural views. One European shampoo-maker had to pull from the Malaysia market a commercial showing a hairdresser washing a woman's hair. The problem: the hairdresser was male.
Can’t think of a good idea? Try sex appeal.
Governments attempt to regulate advertising, but sex appeal blinks at you on neon signs in Hong Kong to huge billboards that share Bangkok’s temple spired skyline. Walk into any modern mall in Kuala Lumpur and you will find giant sized posters of half-naked models showing a lot of flesh-per-square-inch, for Guess, Versace, Calvin Klein and La Senza. So who is kidding who? The big brands do it. Because sex sells.
Here (below) from Lowe Hunt, in Sydney, is a sexy print example from LYNX—a Unilever product. Ads like these make people talk—it's a debate you can have on so many levels. Maybe that's really the reason why sexually charged advertising is so affective. It's not because you're buying the sexual message. It's because you end up talking about whether or not it's okay. And as we all know, any press is good press.
If advertising really does need to have more sex appeal in it, the least that Asia’s marketers could do is make that sex matter. And if they can't make it matter, at least make it more interesting. Clearly, great ads don't need great, good, or even bad sex to get noticed and appreciated.
In his blog, Mark Golin says: “Sex sells, sex sells easily and the whole question is if you don't want to do quite as much sex, that means you're going to have to come up with something else and that means you're going to have to be creative and it's going to be a lot more work and it's going to be a little bit more of a challenge in what's becoming an increasingly competitive market.”
In a recent print ad campaign, Korean car manufacturer Hyundai decided to give their cars a sexier image by putting their cars on hot models bodies in the form of tattoos. The two ads below are from the Jupiter Drawing Room in South Africa. The headline reads: “Pretty But Tough. Hyundai. Drive your way.” The ads caught my eye instantly. I think they really step away from your traditional approach to car ads.
Do ads need to use sex appeal to get attention?
If you look around Asian markets, there is little doubt that sexual content is on the uptick. Why the change? According to Anthony Spaeth of Time Asia, “You can thank satellite television, globalization, and the Internet, for the content that may titillate or tantalize. There are several chat rooms for spouses seeking greater satisfaction; singles who want to do it with someone before marriage, and minority groups such as gays and lesbians. In today's Asia, there's never been a better time for any of these groups to find answers, action, and fulfillment.”
What Asian government regulators say they wish to establish is the line between healthy, informative and interesting content on sexual issues vs. provocative, gratuitous, blatant sexual content. I wonder how that line gets decided. And who decides it and what are the implications of these decisions? After all, people do in fact have sex, last time I checked.
(Above, cards for Pfizer’s Viagara, ad agency: Chil Worldwide, Seoul, Korea)
In order to get around the ban of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs on TV in Korea, Pfizer’s ad agency came up with these interactive ads to promote Viagra pills. The ads come in the shape of a promotional hand fan with an image of an old or fat man. In order to use the fan, you have to put your finger in the hole, which instantly gives the guy an erection. That's fun, and very clever!
Today‘s young Asians now have liberties unimaginable a couple of decades back and their sexual freedom seems to be proliferating, especially on the Internet, no matter what their governments may demand. Sex appeal and sex in advertising are here to stay. That’s undeniable. I've always believed that ads with sex appeal, in general, simply reflect a country’s pop culture—reflecting on what is already happening. They don't in themselves create a new movement.
The question is, is it really the job of governments and politicians to censor advertising and the social movements that are already happening in the world? Is it the right of politicians to tell you what's right and wrong?
Or should that be up to the consumer, the advertiser and the retailer to keep things in check, and to push sexuality forward, but within self-imposed boundaries?
When sexual imagery becomes so ubiquitous in marketing campaigns, it loses the power to shock us or engage our interest. A naked body is about as effective as slapping the words ``New and Improved'' on the front of the product. Instead, companies will have to find another way to promote their goods. Maybe they could try just telling what it is, what it does, and how much it costs. Now, that really would be shocking.
No doubt, much of the work produced with sex appeal themes is intentionally provocative—some say irredeemably sexist, and anti-women. As advertising “looks” to be less blatantly sexist, more ads than ever are being called sexist.
So, where do you draw the line? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Part 2—coming next week
Next week I will conclude this topic with PART 2 of “If we are getting sexier, what about the sex in Asian Advertising?” What you will find is a country by country synopsis — a guide to Sex in Asian Advertising featuring sample ads from TV and print. Stay tuned.