sxc marketing

The sex factor

Posted on: August 19, 2008

You don’t need suggestive imagery to tap into the true power of online campaigns. But there is a vital emotional component that will likely get a rise out of your audience.

I was watching “Mad Men” last night (if you’re in advertising or marketing and aren’t watching, start tuning in) and I came up with a concept that may be prescient: sex doesn’t sell.

What? Am I crazy? “Sex sells” is one of the most pervasive memes in advertising. Hike up a women’s skirt, show some cleavage, throw in a volleyball and voila, beer commercial. It even seems as though the phrase is used by clients and account people everywhere simply as a way to justify the usage of scantily clad women in advertising. But why do they do this? Because the subtlety of what is happening in that ad is lost on them.

What’s the real draw in a campaign that uses sexual imagery? It is the feeling you get from the advertisement that sells the product — not the sex itself. The subtlety, nuance and innuendo; the allure. Tying the idea of sex in with a product works very well in the good ol’ US of A because we are an amazingly sexually repressed nation.

Don’t think so? Well, then, let me venture into territory that is going to make you feel a little uncomfortable, a little dirty, a little naughty… a frank discussion of your sexual desires…

You didn’t think I would go there, did you? And yet, you stuck around to read more, just in case. That, my friends, is advertising: the ability to manipulate.

It’s ok, though. You’re alone. No one is watching you. And that, my new-found frustrated, annoyed friends, is the beauty of the internet (as well as one of its most powerful assets) — the anonymity of consumption. Our sessions are private — well at least from the standpoint of the initial consumption (it’s all being tracked somewhere, but not having to be with other individuals in-person during consumption somehow opens us up to permissiveness). Online, we will consume, take in and absorb that which would be considered offensive in polite company. It is the duality of our public and private selves.

What is permissible online is not permissible in other media because those media are often consumed communally. Reading the paper on the train or bus or even at breakfast in front of your wife or husband; watching football at a bar, “Dexter” with friends (now that is one sadistic program) or reading a magazine on the subway — these are all communal environments.

For example, I ran across a banner ad for a hotel; I won’t say which one, but let’s just say the ad suggested some uses for their hotel rooms as a couple’s getaway and what great beds they had… complete with very suggestive imagery. Needless to say, I glanced left and right when it came up, and I was at home alone. I was not on a “sex” site. Just a mundane cooking blog in the “recipes for dates” section.

I thought for a second. Could I imagine that ad on TV for that brand? I think not. The calls from irate mothers “protecting” their children from the smut on TV would be monstrous. The far right machine would move into action.

A little while ago I wrote on why TV is more potent for branding. Now I’ll tell you an advantage online advertising has: singular consumption permissiveness to push boundaries.

Evoking an emotion is the important takeaway here. Sex is just one tool we use to do that. Pity, shame, guilt, anger and other emotions also work. Don’t believe me? Why do you think hunger commercials have a small child wandering barefoot with a swollen belly and flies around their eyes? It evokes guilt, and anger that we live in world where such things still exist. It is also their reality, and that is even more impactful. Why? Truth.

Truth is the powerful ally in all these emotions; it’s that which resonates with some emotional construct in your body that has been societally programmed.

Look, people are intelligent beings. We often know we are being manipulated. The strange thing is, often, we don’t care. Most of us live a life of repetitive tasks. Over and over. We are willing to be manipulated if that manipulation makes us feel a little better about ourselves. Prime example. Dove Soap. The Real Beauty campaign by Dove is one of the most powerful statements in advertising against the obsession our culture has with beauty. They have tapped into our cynicism. Now, what would really be nice is if Dove was not owned by the same company that markets Axe Body Spray. The reality is each of these campaigns is just as manipulative as the other. The are both designed to make people feel good about themselves. Empowered. Is either campaign better or worse? In my opinion, nope. Same thing. They are both objectifying women and using them — just in different ways.

In the end, they’re just designed to sell a product. That’s all. Some products are more helpful than others. But all advertising is manipulation. Just because you have a great product doesn’t absolve you from the fact that your ads are designed to manipulate people into buying your product. You may be manipulating them with truth, but it is never the whole truth now is it?

The emotional connection to your consumer is what truly sells, not the sex in and of itself. Start realizing what the advertising is doing to people and it won’t matter whether or not you have a half-naked, tanned, oiled goddess in a bathing suit in your ad. It’s the construct of that ad, the subtleties of its expression, where the emotional resonance often lies. It’s why the creatives throw themselves on swords all the time to promote the slightest change. The account team and the client often just do not see the difference. They are too close to their product. The account person’s job is to connect with the client. It’s the creative person’s job is to connect with the consumer.

Here are some tips to start you on your way to emotional tapping.

1. Start getting a little more uncomfortable about your online advertising. The permissiveness of singular consumption methods of advertising allows you to push boundaries once considered Taboo. The PR side may take a hit, but any chances you take likely won’t be considered “risky” from the legal standpoint. Let your lawyers be concerned about potential lawsuits. You should be concerned about how the consumers connect with your product.

2. Tap into the emotional benefit of the product, not the product benefit you think you want to market. Those extra cup-holders that fit juice-boxes may sell more mini-vans than that extra 20 horsepower. Why? Sanity for that driver transporting urchins in back. Passing someone doing 120 is of little consequence to them.

3. Take the filters off your guerilla marketing and social networking efforts. Those media demand truth. If you do not give it to consumers there, your programs will never gain the emotional resonance, which is what drives those consumers to both pass on and defend that information.

4. Relax and test it. The speed of which things can go up online, and be pulled down is fast. Utilize that to see what resonates with your consumers emotions. Which ones are hitting. And develop a metric to measure it that

Look, this is not rocket science, and the dynamics of consumer intent are often complex and subtle. Tap into the consumers emotions. Sex sells, but only if you know how to use it.

ranty rant signing off…

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