Sex Sells – But at What Cost?

June 18, 2012

This post is part of Ketchum’s Cannes*ectivity – insights shared from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Click here to read additional posts.

It’s Sunday at 2:30pm in Cannes and I’m watching really graphic advertising. “This is going to be explicit,” warns Textappeal CEO Elliot Polak, perhaps looking to arouse those of us arriving straight from our redeye flights to the world of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. But he’s not kidding.

The lights dim, and I’m literally watching an ad with a man spraying Skittles from his own body rather provocatively (Skittles parent company is a Ketchum client). That’s followed by a European Doritos ad set in a shower room with one dude seemingly reaching suggestively towards another man, but instead grabbing a bag of chips. The next few make me feel like I’m watching the sexually-graphic new HBO series Girls alongside my college-age daughter – that is to say, slightly embarrassed (I’m sitting with colleagues after all). From the U.K., a man sensually slathers Marmite all over a woman’s torso; and the Brazilians go even more hardcore with an extremely vivid sex act juxtaposed with some sort of butter or spread. The reel ends with a clever condom ad from Kenya that has the romantic overtures of a man culminate in his rolling a condom over the full length of an umbrella. The final ad, of course, is designed to slow the spread of AIDS.

This seminar is called, “Culture Shocks: Porn, Youth and Brands” with the subhead: “The Biggest Socio-Cultural Influence Today That We Don’t Talk About.” Polak introduces founder of website Cindy Gallop, who supports porn but derides stereotyping. A former ad exec turned tech entrepreneur, Gallop believes that certain imagery has distorted the way people think about sex and intimacy, and her site aims to correct the damaging myths and false expectations being propagated. Her real goal is to inspire and stimulate open, healthy conversations about sex and pornography, which will in turn lead to more open, healthy sexual relationships.

She’s frustrated, she tells us, that she couldn’t get any brand marketers on the Cannes stage with her to openly discuss sex in advertising. She’s also hopping mad that only three percent of creative directors in ad agencies are female, despite most advertising being aimed at female gatekeepers. She’s similarly disapproving of the male-skewed Cannes juries. “How is it that it’s mostly men who are judging what’s creative?” she asks, and, man, does she have a point.

“The Male Gaze,” an art history term that describes how paintings of women by men were usually created for male pleasure, also explains why advertising through a male lens can be degrading or misleading, said Gallop. She stood on the stage imploring the marketing community to move beyond stereotypic sexual imagery to “be a force of good.”

Later on, I chat with a PR Lions judge who admitted that the objectification of women was a subject of heated debate during the judging of awards. He shares, confidentially, that the jury was split on one compelling entry. The results were incredible, he admits, but a sexy celebrity was pimped out to achieve success. “Did the idea make the shortlist?” I ask. “Yes,” he answers. “The results were just too good.”

The pornification of pop culture is having a more profound influence on perceptions and behaviors than any of us may want to acknowledge. For youth marketers in particular, it’s a topic of serious importance. The next social responsibility battleground, it seems, is addressing and portraying sexuality in open and non-stereotypic terms. Sex may sell, but consider the costs.