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February 21, 2019

Does sex still sell?

Sexy models at car show.PHOTO/COURTESY
Sexy models at car show.PHOTO/COURTESY

Doing anything in East Africa these days means spending a long time stationary on our crowded roads. So, there’s plenty of time to look around and lots of opportunities for surprise.

So there I was last Friday, minding everyone else’s business, when a billboard surprised me. Not the usual kind of surprise that has me railing against marketing silliness. It made me think because it came from a marketing organisation that understands both the message and the medium – Coca-Cola.

Coke has returned to sex (or sensuality) as a selling tool. The ‘Taste the freshness’ campaign features a beautiful girl touching the iconic glass bottle to her lips. A powerful image, carefully cast and expertly photographed. This is almost certainly a global campaign with carefully prescribed parameters. So has one of the world’s leading consumer brands re-evaluated sexuality as a persuader?

Last year the American Psychological Association published a study on sex and violence in advertising. They concluded sex never helps brand memory. It stimulates our primal instinct for reproduction and thus sidelines the brand.

But they also found when sexy ads were aired in a thematically congruent context (for example during an episode of the TV series Game of Thrones) brand memory and buying intentions increased. Not that I saw the billboard in a thematically congruent context; I had been in traffic for two hours and was unmovable.

The earliest known use of sex in advertising is by the Pearl Tobacco brand in 1871, which featured a naked maiden on the pack.

In the 1960s, a Scottish brewery started reproducing colour photography on beer tins. They began innocently enough with landscapes of Scotland, but when those ran dry they featured other images. One of these was a picture of Nelson’s Column on London’s Trafalgar Square. For scale, the photographer placed a miniskirted model at the base. On the tin she was 4mm tall. But the brand’s biggest drinkers were oil workers in the Gulf, deprived of female company and in a congruent context. The resultant postal avalanche created The Tennent’s Lager Can Girls - a powerful brand property until the mid-90s when I worked there.

Italian brand Benetton gained worldwide attention for its saucy advertising by art director Oliviero Toscani. The campaign – United Colours of Benetton – became increasingly provocative with interracial groupings, and unusual sexual images such as a nun kissing a priest.

Gallup research has more than 50 years of testing advertising effectiveness and finds the erotic to be “an impactful communications technique, although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser”.

Ad Age has a list of Top 100 most effective ads of the century. Only eight involve sex. And to bring us up to date, Unruly Media lists the most viewed car ad viral – only one uses sex.

Most of my references above are to markets outside Africa. So it remains to be seen whether consumers here connect with the latest refreshment of brand Coca-Cola.



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