Advertisers No Longer Bristling About Sexual Content

sexualcontentUpscale clothing retailer Holt Renfrew discovered that in early September when it placed an ad for the French perfume Jaipur in a quarterly fashion supplement published by The Globe and Mail. Designed in France, the black-and-white ad showed a naked woman whose wrists were bound behind her back by a bracelet-shaped perfume bottle. Within hours of the ad’s release, says Gwen Gibson, the company’s director of promotions and publicity, angry customers were calling Holt Renfrew to complain. The company promptly cancelled the ad and placed an apology in the newspaper the next day for “any distress” it may have caused.

According to Gibson, Holt Renfrew officials had previously reviewed the Jaipur photo and were not expecting any criticism. “Obviously, if we thought somebody was going to be offended, we would not have run it,” she added. Still, the same image has drawn fierce objections elsewhere. Earlier this year, the French makers of Jaipur were forced to pull their ads from the subway system in London, amid complaints that the company was “peddling bondage and degradation.” The Toronto-based feminist lobby group MediaWatch, meanwhile, says it has received “six or eight calls” from people who believed the ad glamorized bondage. Some callers thought it particularly offensive in light of the summer’s media coverage of the Paul Bernardo murder trial.

Shari Graydon, the Vancouver-based president of MediaWatch, says she was shocked to learn the ad had appeared in Canada. For the past year, she has used it in lectures to illustrate what she sees as a trend towards the use of explicit sexuality in advertising. “For most people, it’s pretty self-evident that there’s an implied violent element to it,” she says. “And I think that is heightened right now because of the attention that has been paid to the Bernardo trial.”

Graydon adds that MediaWatch has received more complaints about Calvin Klein’s frequent depictions of pubescent sensuality–beginning with a much-publicized campaign featuring 15-year-old Brooke Shields in 1980–than any other advertiser. She found his most recent campaign especially “creepy” because it coincides with heightened concern about the sexual abuse of children. Its success in drawing extra attention to the product made it even more distasteful. “It really depresses me that the guy should make money out of something like this that is fundamentally antisocial, manipulative and exploitative,” says Graydon.

Although Klein himself has insisted that the campaign was not pornographic, the head of the agency that placed the ads in Canada acknowledges he knew they would offend some people. He also believed they would appeal to their intended audience: teenagers and young adults. Ron Telpner, president of the Toronto-based ad agency BCP, says that before he bought space for the ads in transit shelters and oversized billboards in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as broadcast time on MuchMusic, he solicited the views of staff members in their early 20s. “They thought they were great,” he says. Later, after the FBI launched its investigation in late August, he took the video versions home and played them for his two teenage children and their friends–including Edenson. In the TV spots, an unseen older male with a hand-held video camera instructs the young models to unbutton their jeans, asks if they have ever posed nude before and praises their physiques. Observes Edenson: “It was, like, ‘If you’re taking this the wrong way, it’s all in your mind–I’m just standing here wearing these jeans.’ ” For his part, Telpner agrees the campaign pushed the limits of acceptability. But that, he says, is exactly what the best advertising does. “Our aim is not to offend anybody. Our aim is to sell jeans.”

Many experts, however, believe that public tolerance of overt sexuality in advertising is waning. A recent academic study of consumer attitudes in the Journal of Advertising concluded that “the age-old notion that sex sells may be an unduly risky assumption” in the 1990s because of widespread concern about morality and sexual stereotyping. “I think we’ve got a conservative swing in society,” says Tony Henthorn, a University of Southern Mississippi marketing professor who co-wrote the report. “Advertisers may have just been caught literally with their pants down.”

Keeler has also detected a new conservatism among consumers. Sexual imagery is now the single biggest cause of complaints to the CAF, which administers a voluntary set of guidelines on advertising content. What’s more, she says, advertisers can no longer get away with images they could have used even five years ago. Keeler points to a controversy in Toronto this summer over a billboard for Swatch watches that featured a photo of a woman from the neck down unbuttoning her blouse–to demonstrate, as the ad put it, that the watches were “shock resistant.” Keeler believes that, until recently, images like that would have attracted few complaints. Instead, Swatch withdrew the ad after a barrage of criticism that it objectified women.

Even so, most advertisers agree that how far they can go depends largely on where their images appear. The Jaipur campaign that embarrassed Holt Renfrew is so popular in France it has been turned into a postcard. And although Brazilian authorities last week pulled an anti-AIDS television ad that featured a talking penis named Braulio, the concern was not that it was too explicit, but that people with the same name were being subjected to public ridicule. In Canada, says Marty Myers, president of BAM Creative Directions, a Toronto agency, the commercial would likely have been seen as “too funny for the subject matter.”

Quebecers are more likely than most other Canadians to accept sexually explicit advertising, says Yvonne McKinnon, vice-president of advertising for Mediacom Inc., Canada’s largest owner of outdoor advertising space. Torontonians, on the other hand, are responsible for at least half of all the complaints Mediacom receives about sex in advertising.

Consumers across Canada are also less tolerant of images that they cannot easily switch off or put aside. That message was rather painfully driven home this month to the owners of Goldstein & Son, a newly opened Toronto eyeglass company that is planning to open stores across Canada. The store’s agency, K. D. Black & Co., designed bus shelter ads with the caption “All you need to see” alongside images of naked men and women, with black bars covering their genitals and breasts. At Mediacom’s request, the advertising foundation reviewed the ad and concluded it violated guidelines because the images were “entirely irrelevant” to the product and were used “only to gain attention.”

Mediacom has since accepted a new version of the poster–with large black circles replacing the black bars. McKinnon says she believed the original version was inappropriate for a bus shelter because such ads are highly visible and because many women would feel vulnerable standing in front of them late at night. But Dean Black, the agency’s president, counters that the move amounted to unjustified censorship. “I think pushing the envelope in our profession shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that you are necessarily offending people,” he says. “I’m not so sure that people really are less tolerant, and that’s why we would have liked to get the ad in front of the public.”

Black, in fact, is determined to press on with the attention-getting campaign he designed for Goldstein & Son. The original version of the ad deemed offensive by the CAF is now running in three alternative weekly newspapers in Toronto. And for extra punch, the agency has created a series of publicity postcards–one of which features a photograph of dozens of sperm cells swimming in the same direction. Among them, one cell is heading in the opposite direction, wearing a pair of red glasses. Like Klein, Black says his goal is to represent rugged individuality.

Of course, the whole point of advertising has always been to attract attention. And depending on the client, controversy is not always a bad thing–a point illustrated by the enduring popularity of Klein’s denims. “Fashion advertising has always been built on visual scandals,” says Shelley Ambrose, creative director in the Toronto office of J. Walter Thompson, a major international agency. Still, many advertisers say that, in the current climate, they need to be more sensitive to public concerns about the overuse of sexual images. “The challenge,” says Telpner, “is to come up with something just as innovative.” And the question is not whether advertisers will continue to defy convention, but how.

  • Major Mom:

    I am always beside my kids when the television is on. I want to be there just in case they see something that is strange to them. I cannot control what is in there on TV but I can always be there to guide my children.

  • Mrs. Nora:

    I hate it when TV commercials have too much sexual content. Advertisers must keep in mind that there are minors in front of the television all the time.

  • Doug's House:

    I think there are advertisers who prefer to have more sexual content on their ads because they believe it’s more catchy.

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