Does Sex Really Sell?

In nearby North Carolina, a man sneaks a sidelong glance at his neighbor as they stand at a row of urinals–“See how you measure up”–in a call-for-submissions poster for the Piedmont Triad Advertising Federation’s Addy competition. The theme reflects the contest’s rigid judging standards, and the Burris Agency in High Point was proud to have offended “the suits”: “If it doesn’t make someone nervous, you shouldn’t do it, because it will just be part of the general clutter,” reasons copywriter LeAnn Wilson-McGuire. Modestly accomplished, the poster delivers the informational goods while ridiculing awards as a yardstick by which designers measure their self-worth–and unlike the Virginia version, it skewers male vanity, letting women in on the daring, if dated, joke.

Let’s move up to the alleged urban sophistication of New York, where the Addy Club promotion emphasizes designers’ obsession with the work, not the prize. A call-for-entries poster depicts a deep blue Manhattan night, a distant apartment with a well-lit window, and a nearly naked man and woman on the verge of a tender embrace. In the foreground, a guy with a scruffy beard gapes through a pair of binoculars–not at the pre-coital couple but at a three-story image of a yellow rubber duckie on the side of a building. (The duckie, with the Mercedes-Benz logo imprinted on its eyes, was the winning entry from last year’s contest.) The image, by New York agency Hill Holliday, attempts to convey that advertising can be more compelling, more stimulating, than sex, and the Club is pleased with its “irreverence.” Its execution, however, is about as funny and racy as a Playboy cartoon circa 1958.

Jumping over to stiff-upper-lipped Britain, the London Association of Designers & Art Directors hoped to reposition itself as a youthful, hip organization when it assigned Saatchi & Saatchi and Farrow Design to promote its world-wide competition. One resulting ad shows a harsh Polaroid-style photo of a man’s black nylon briefs bulging with the contour of D&AD’s Yellow Pencil award; another equally artless ad shows the Pencil standing amidst vibrators and dildos in a medicine cabinet. And a graphic for the call-for-entries brochure imprints the Pencil on individual Viagra tablets–as if one prize-as-potency-pill ploy wasn’t already one too many. D&AD’s chief executive David Kester says that those who take offense are simply missing the point, but there isn’t much of a point here, other than the one on his Pencil. The concepts are so trite, their presentations so dry and reserved, that any irony in using this stubby writing utensil as an icon of sexual ecstasy is easily lost. And so we’re left with a campaign that somehow is both stiff and limp.


Cheeky ad, right??

Back in New York, we have a promotion for the international competition held by the locally based Art Directors Club. The ADC, also intent on shaking its over-the-hill image, had MTV’s off-air creative group design its call-for-entries mailer. The teaser copy, “By yourself,” unfolds to a Seussian “With the TV on. In a group. On the Web. In the dark. With a magazine.” The full poster depicts a computer-generated illustration of a gigantic pulsating vibrator, dubbed the “creative stimulator,” glowing in brilliant yellow with an acid-green handle; bulbous, rubberized protrusions on its pink neck; and missile-shaped extensions on its silver metallic head, ribbed for who-knows-whose pleasure. The payoff: “However you get off, get it in by January 15, 1999.”

Its visual treatment isn’t particularly innovative, echoing the macho cybergraphic style demonstrated throughout the 1990s by Thirst, Me Company, and the late P. Scott Makela. And the sexual entendres are puerile. Yet the poster proved popular among its intended audience, many of whom displayed it in their studios like a high-tech tribal totem. It also unleashed a Pandora’s box of vitriol. Critics denounced the ADC’s creative stimulator as ugly, obnoxious, demented, and “obviously designed by a male with a very small penis”; one former ADC president threatened, in a scathing letter to its board of directors, that he would “do everything to see that you will not get an opportunity to produce more crude junk.” Even D&AD Pencil-pusher Kester considers it “disgusting and obscene.”

But the ADC claims to be unfazed, citing “scintillating” responses as proof of the psychedelic power tool’s ability to excite. Indeed, the Vibrator From Another Planet succeeds by the sheer force of its out-of-control lunacy. Its execution is so patently absurd as to parody the notion of the creative process as a source of self-gratification, and its self-consciously sophomoric stance takes a well-deserved poke at venerated views of high design and refined taste. While the creators of most of the other designs are relatively clumsy and restrained in their approach, this team is not only having comfortably uninhibited fun itself, it’s also sharing the fun with its “partners,” the audience that appreciates the poster’s subtext. And this is what brings the work beyond sex into something resembling love.

Max Bruinsma, former editor of the British magazine Eye, recently wrote about D&AD’s Pencil and ADC’s vibrator without drawing much distinction between them. He admonished designers to spend less time “getting off on their own work” and more time listening to the needs of their clients. But ironically, both pieces fulfill their creative briefs perfectly; their clients credit them for marked upswings in submissions. And their functional success is to be expected: With jaded, cynical creatives as their target, sex-as-sales-strategy is an effective approach for appearing transgressive while assuring bang-for-the-buck results.

Bruinsma also blasted both campaigns as masturbatory and products of male-centered egoism, “just too phallic to be trusted!” His broad-stroke condemnation and strict equation of aggression with masculinity misinterprets the ADC’s stimulator–it’s tongue-in-cheek, not hand-on-crotch. But countering the argument may be futile; considering his apparent scorn for graphic self-pleasure, it’s unlikely he’d ever heed the humbling advice often meted out to those who can’t take a joke.

While most of the work here fails to satisfy esthetically, the ADC’s–and, to a lesser extent, the Piedmont Triad Advertising Federation’s–calls-for-entries demonstrate that, properly handled, the male organ (and bad taste) have a place in graphic design. This isn’t to say that the profession isn’t capable of producing a much higher caliber of design. Perhaps a future wave of promotions using female iconography would generate even more controversy, but they also might be smarter, subtler, and more sophisticated.


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