Sex Still Sells But So Does Sensitivity

Sex sells. But how advertisers use it is changing. Women show up in far more roles in today's ads than they did a few years ago. Companies are seeking not only to avoid offending women sensitized to exploitation by a generation of feminism but also to target them as new consumers.

But don't expect an end to sex-laced appeals, crude or discreet. If some are more restrained, it's mostly because the soft sell is successful. And it won't end debate over whether women are too often depicted as sexual objects.

Marketers such as US West Inc. are certainly paying more attention to how women appear in their ads. The Baby Bell used images from the old West to show its competitiveness when it emerged from the AT&T breakup. At least a few employees grumbled that the campaign was too macho. But the company made a point of finding cowgirls as well as cowboys for the ads. Says a US West official: "We tried very hard to make those ads pluralistic."

Software maker Lotus Development Corp. has killed a marketing brochure that showed a busty woman in a revealing T-shirt. And Ford Motor Co. broke with tradition at this year's auto show in Detroit. It hired actors reflecting real-life customers rather than feminine beauties to point and smile at revolving machines. It had good reason: 47% of its new-car buyers are women. Such numbers, and the need to flaunt products' unique advantages, have more carmakers moving beyond hyping autos with sex appeal. Some advertisers even turn the tables on male standards: Naturalizer urges women to pick shoes they like and to reject uncomfortable ones.

Some on Madison Ave. say AIDS and growing moralism are reinforcing the trend. And aging baby boomers are fostering a new family focus, more tender romance, and less explicitness. "We're all parents now," says John Nieman, chief creative officer at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Inc. "Saturday night fever is behind us."

Of course, this doesn't mark the end of sexual innuendo. "Advertisers were more scared of offending women three years ago," when feminists were more unified and quicker to protest, says Barbara Lippert, a senior editor at Adweek magazine. She calls the still-booming health-and-fitness craze "an excuse to show more body parts."

ARTFUL OR AWFUL? Certainly, many jeans ads flaunt flesh. Ads for Calvin Klein's Obsession show provocative nude bodies. And there's still no shortage of girlie pin-ups. Emerson Electric Co.'s Ridge Tool prints up 600,000 of its biennial bathing-suit calendars. Peter Hayward, Ridge's advertising director, calls them a "useful tool" for getting the company's name out to users.

Whether such ads seem artful or awful depends on the buyer. Stephen J. Burrows, Anheuser-Busch Co. vice-president for brand management, claims most of his customers find nothing wrong with ads sporting bikini-clad models. "We don't think we depict any individual in a less-than-responsible fashion in ads," Burrows says. "And the discussions we've had with consumers support that view."

For marketers, then, the answer to where sensuality ends and insensitivity begins still starts with the old query: Does it sell?

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