Sex & advertising – why do we buy it?

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2012/07/24 by admin

Tom Barfield

Walk west from Oxford Circus and you can’t escape the women. They’re huge and they’re everywhere: smiling faces beam from the sides of buses, writhing mannequins leer out through glass, wall-spanning, endless legs taper down to garish, pointy heels. It feels like more sexually charged information than anyone could possibly take in.

Essentially, this is spam. It’s an assault on your consciousness, sleepers laid across the rails of your train of thought. One of my favourite writers, Charlie Strossposted on his blog in April that “all advertising tends towards the state of spam (which is merely free-as-in-dirt-cheap-and-unregulated advertising)”.

In fact, the spammers have cottoned on, based on our clicks and views, to a universal truth of advertising: the sexier the ad, the more clicks you’ll get. Even a female face, compared with almost any other picture, will do the trick.

This is easy to prove. I’ve worked for a few different media organisations with big web presences. Looking at web analytics, you’ll be able to see what people searched for to get to your site, what pages were the most popular, and much else besides. If there is a solitary page on which pornography or sex are mentioned it will likely have the most views. This is often true even if that piece of information hasn’t been updated for years and you can’t imagine why someone would click through to page 572 of Google results for “porn”.

But we live in a world where women have been proving themselves in business and politics, high and low, for decades.  Men have had ample time to get used to the idea of women as equals; women, to get used to the idea that they don’t need to attract and hold onto a man to be financially secure or physically safe.

Why do advertisers think that I, as a man, will be tempted to gamble by a well-endowed woman leaning low over a slot machine? Why do they think that women will be tempted by deodorant that promises to entice a hirsute, muscular man? Why are the lingerie adverts on Oxford Street so difficult to distinguish from those outside the Soho sex shops a couple of hundred metres down the road?

Another recent blog post suggests a possible answer. Venkatesh Rao writes in “The Future Nauseous” about the idea of a “Manufactured Normalcy Field” – we accommodate change in our environment by equating new things with old. If we can’t fit something into our picture of how the world works, we can’t accept it. That’s why electronic messages are “mail” and your computer “workstation” has a “desktop”. Rao posits that we’re all living in “some thoroughly mangled, overloaded, stretched and precarious version of the 15th century that is just good enough to withstand casual scrutiny.”

Our Normalcy Field hasn’t really accommodated equality for women at all. It’s just shoe-horned young or particularly determined women them into the basic-economic-unit niche that was previously the exclusive preserve of men. When it comes time to have a family, the inevitable question is “who will earn the money?” – and our culture, expectations and even legal provisions (like maternity/paternity leave) don’t leave a lot of answers open.

Sexualised ads work because they reflect our unacknowledged expectations of the world. Advertising sexy lingerie or anti-wrinkle cream or hair straighteners to women still works because the majority of media output, of politics, of fiction and music and literature is still overwhelmingly stuck in the mode of women being in need of a man, and that has a conscious or unconscious impact.

For men, it’s an excuse for the same-old, same-old: just buy this car or this watch, win this money, have these muscles or wear this suit and you’ll gain access to women. We come to terms with the future by making it as much like the past as possible, and we are all – men and women – experiencing the limitations of that process.

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