Cannes Lions | Article
Let's Talk About Sex

Marketers usually pride themselves on their level of consumer insight, but the advertising industry’s shallow, heteronormative and ultimately clichéd understanding of human sexuality could actually be alienating potential customers. Sex sells, for sure, but seemingly only to people who all view the world through the same narrow straight male lens.

“Our industry has not even begun to see the power of depicting sex through the female creative lens,” says Cindy Gallop, founder of MakeLoveNotPorn and outspoken supporter of “real world sex.” I interviewed Gallop when first launched in 2012. Four years on and her organisation is still facing the same old obstacles; the corporate world is prudish, squeamish even, about what actually happens when two people are in bed together.

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When it comes to ad world, it feels counter-intuitive that we are ignoring such a universal human experience when we quantify and categorise practically every other area of people’s lives. The sexuality of millennial consumers isn’t vastly different to that of Gen Xers or baby boomers; quite the opposite, in fact. “It doesn’t matter what generation we are, we’re all rampantly insecure about sex,” says Gallop.

“The internet has flattened and democratised sex,” adds journalist Mobeen Azhar. While filming his documentary on the chemsex scene in London and San Francisco, Azhar found that it isn’t just under-25 digital natives using Grindr to participate in this culture, but the over-50s too.

But finding reliable data on the sex lives of your consumers, no matter the age, is easier said than done. “This is the one area of research where there is the widest possible gap between what people say, and what people actually do,” says Gallop. She does praise PornHub, however, for the way it uses its wealth of data to deliver insights into the tastes and habits of its users (which means pretty much anyone over the age of 18).

There is research out there which suggests that one of the most erotic experiences is quite simply the feeling of being accepted for who you are. What brand wouldn’t want their customers to feel accepted – and a little bit turned on?

Brands in the bedroom

In perhaps her least profane soundbite, Gallop quotes William Blake: “What is it men in women do require? The lineaments of gratified desire. What is it women in men do require? The lineaments of gratified desire.” Essentially; what makes us happiest, in bed and in general, is knowing that we make our partners happy.

The few sex tech start-ups getting funding are the hardware companies that seek to reduce sex to a simple, one-sided act, be it through VR porn or life-like robots. It is by tapping into the intimacy which people crave that Gallop and Azhar believes we can achieve a healthier approach to sex — and brands have a part to play in this. “Brands are often very good at objectifying at a surface level,” says Azhar. We need to go deeper (if you’ll pardon the pun) in our efforts to really get to grips with human sexuality, because as Azhar puts it: “Sex makes the world go round.

“The reason brands need to wake up and advertising needs to get over its problem with sex is because brands and products are spectacularly failing to acknowledge the universal area of human experience,” she says. “People have sex in cars, and yet the automotive industry spectacularly fails to ever acknowledge that, or to allow that to influence product design.” Kitchen counters are much the same, she adds. Even mattresses! They’re not just for sleeping on, you know.

The way Gallop sees it, the advertising industry has a duty to remove the stigma and embarrassment which continue to surround this subject. And it can start with your very next client brief. When talking about your consumer, their habits, their preferences, also talk about what their behaviour is likely to be like in their sex life. Doing this can yield “profound areas of insight.”

It’s all too easy and tempting to follow the two-dimensional template set by campaigns past when it comes to incorporating sexuality into your communications, but “Hello Boys” won’t cut it any more. And sure, your brand might take some heat for daring to broach the topic of sex. But the risk could be worth the reward. Just look at AXE, which has ditched its fratboy-flavoured objectification of women and instead decided to celebrate the many hues of male sexuality and modern masculinity.

“Fear of what other people will think is the most paralysing dynamic in business and in life,” says Gallop. “You will never own the future if you care what other people think.”

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