Click the remote and see a young man and his company's older female president, who takes him for a joyride in the Volkswagen Passat. Channel surfing again, Brut Actif's fragrance makes a couple fall into a pool and a steamy embrace.
It's public sex, voyeurism, beefcake and the older woman/younger man liaison of the new generation-topics I hear every night on my call-in radio show and now among the sex appeals in TV advertising. They prove that despite waves of conservatism, the "Sex in America" study's affirmation of fidelity or the ongoing fear of AIDS, sex still sells.
If you want to catch people's attention-which after all is the point of advertising-sex is one way to break the message out of the clutter. Associating product with pleasure propels purchases.
But because advertising both reflects and affects contemporary societal norms, there are trends that change over time in how, where, when and why sexual messages work best.
The use of sex in TV selling began with the medium's own beginnings. In one '50s spot, a wife perked up a tired husband with a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, making him chase her around the room and behind a screen as she shed garments. A similar "strip" theme in the mid-'60s was much more memorable: the Noxzema shaving cream commercial that invited male viewers to "take it off, take it all off."
By 1970, the subtle sexual suggestion that "Virginia is for Lovers" helped catapult that conservative state into a top vacation destination.
Beer led the way in using sex to sell, with scenes of partying and buxom babes, starting with the Miss Rheingold beauty pageants of the '50s. Car spots followed, with models like Catherine Deneuve and Farrah Fawcett draped over the chassis or stroking wheels and seats suggestively. In 1973, adman George Lois made an Italian tire company a household name by switching from a macho spokesman to a high-fashion Italian model in a skin-tight dress changing a Pirelli while she murmured, "Change into something comfortable."
The explosion of hot spots came with the jeans category about 15 years ago, when then-15-year-old Brooke Shields cooed that nothing came between her and her Calvins. The timing was right, giving a jolt to the fizzling sexual revolution of the late '60s and '70s and injecting excitement into the lives of men and women in an economic recession.
Psychologically it makes sense: when money gets tight, morals get loose. As sales of the $50 jeans nearly doubled from $65 million to $110 million in one year, Madison Avenue was sold on shock appeal. That campaign spawned a parade of provocative poses on TV to sell everything from popcorn to pizza, and prompted The Wall Street Journal to call 1980 the "year of the leer."
Today, there are two opposite trends in using sex to sell on TV. Despite the so-called safer-sex era, one trend continues to be bare bodies, as with Lever 2000's sudsing down nude body parts and Diet Coke's bare-chested construction worker being ogled by women. This seeming sexual liberalism is fueled by the fitness craze, increased competition and much more graphic depictions in music videos, movies and, of course, mainstream TV programming.
The other trend is a more subtle approach. The softer-sex sell owes thanks in part to years of efforts by the woman's movement and the emergence of the New Man. He's the Family Man, as shown in Folgers and American Express spots. And he's the Romantic Man in McCann-Erickson's Taster's Choice soap-opera-like serial, asking to be invited in-for coffee and more.
As the macho man world has evolved into an equality of partners in recent years, more spots feature strong women and their male partners. But the evolution has brought with it "reverse-sexism," in which men make fun of themselves as jerk dates for Bud Dry or become sex objects for Diet Coke.
A content analysis of male and female portrayals in commercials from 1971 to 1988 reveals some ongoing sex role stereotyping, but with a trend toward more women as central characters and more men as spouses and fathers.
One group, American Women in Radio and TV, was hard put in the '80s to find commercials suitable for honoring as depicting positive images of women, but there were many by the '90s. What stronger female images than Nike's female runners and the recent spot showing a woman in a Mercedes-Benz overtaking an 18-wheeler while reprising Helen Reddy's '70s feminist rally, "I Am Woman, hear me roar."
Advertisers taking a harder-core "sex sell" approach began to meet more resistance in the '80s-a resistance still much in evidence. Some has come from watchdog groups, like the efforts of Detroit housewife Terry Rakolta, who protested among other things the degree of sex in TV's "Married With Children" by complaining to the advertisers, and other consumer, religious and special-interest activist groups, including Morality in Media, MediaWatch and National Organization for Women.
The reaction against blatant sex in TV spots may have reached a peak three years ago in the first court case of its kind, when female employees sued Stroh Brewery Co. for sexual harassment and included the company's "Swedish Bikini Team" campaign as evidence of a "hostile work environment." (The judge ruled promotional material on the airwaves couldn't be admitted into evidence. Stroh's defended its approach as a parody, but the spots were pulled and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.)
Most spots never reach this stage of public scrutiny, as network standards and practices executives explain, because agencies and the broadcast censors (relying on in-house guidelines) negotiate even at the storyboard stage.
"Very few ads are problematic because the agencies are sensitive to work with us beforehand and send storyboards for approval; it's an ongoing process that usually never results in a rejection," says Harvey Dzodin, VP-commercial standards at ABC-TV.
Jovan flew in the face of this procedure in 1987, when its "What Is Sexy" campaign had to go back to the cutting room because of unacceptable wriggling toes that suggested foreplay.
In some cases, creating controversy pays off. President-CEO Neil Cole of Candies Inc. makes "no excuses" for the sexual implications of his campaigns, from his first brainstorm to put Donna Rice and Marla Maples into his No Excuses brand jeans in '87-a move that exploded Mr. Cole's then-company, New Retail Concepts, into a $60 million operation.
"In 30 seconds, to keep people from going to the refrigerator, you have to astound them-and sex does," he says.
A similar uproar sensationalism surrounded a Candies commercial last spring that showed a woman in Candies shoes dancing on a bed before her mate; Mr. Cole said NBC and ABC refused to air it, and CBS would run it only after 11 p.m.
The spot did air on MTV and received news coverage on CNN, he notes.
Another Candies campaign, for outdoor shoes, featured a spot with a woman straddling a man, admonishing him she's "not ready yet," and then telling him to "take a hike" as he sits bare-bottomed, though concealed by the back of a chair.
Mr. Cole says this spot was rejected by the three major networks-with the resulting fervor getting it more air time than paid placements would have-and that it aired on Fox and MTV.
Beth Bressan, VP and head of program practices at CBS, says the network turned down the spot because it was "inappropriate for our older demographics."
While sex sells, money talks. Mr. Cole attributes part of the problem to ad budgets, explaining that "Because of [Calvin Klein's] huge advertising budget, the networks turn the other way when $5 million or $10 million are at stake."
Standards aren't rigidly governed, as network standards departments have shrunk under cutbacks, and Federal Communications Commission guidelines have been loosened and caught in court battles, leaving self-policing by the advertising industry, channel switching by the consumer and protests by special interest groups.
What's acceptable in TV advertising pales compared with the extent of explicit scenes on daytime soaps (estimated to portray an average of 10.9 sexual behaviors an hour) and nighttime mainstream TV (discussions of masturbation and orgasm on "Seinfeld").
While I agree in principle with advertisers who critique this gap, the CBS response makes sense.
Says Ms. Bressan: "People know what to expect from their TV schedule, but don't know when an ad is going to appear. And a long-form also offers more time to resolve the sexual issue than a 30-second spot."
As long as there is attraction, sex will be a part of advertising. Without uniform standards, what airs will continue to be a battle-or balance-between creative, social and religious forces.M
Judy Kuriansky is a clinical psychologist and author of "Generation Sex" (HarperCollins, 1995). She hosts the "Love Phones" radio show in New York, Cleveland and Houston.