Advertising acts as a lightning rod for these double standards. So we put together a reel of ads that use sex -- to varying degrees -- drawn from all around the world. We sent this reel to Leo Burnett offices around the world to conduct focus groups and provide some insight into how people react to sex in advertising, and why they react as they do. For instance, in some Catholic countries, any reference to casual sex is deeply uncomfortable. One of the spots on the reel uses a joke about contraception to sell wood varnish, of all things. In Spain, a country where the most powerful female icon is the Virgin Mary and the most powerful male icon is the bull, a young man will measure his manhood by the number of sexual conquests he has achieved, and yet still want to marry a virgin. But think about it: the math doesn't add up! What's more, women know this, so even a humorous commercial that hints at contraception opens a hypocritical can of worms. They don't want to think about it.
The French, on the other hand, will use sex everywhere. As our French planning director put it, "You can use a breast in anything, provided you can think of a vaguely plausible reason for doing so." For them, sex is healthy, innocent, natural and unencumbered. But show them an ad that uses humor with sex and they will dismiss it as silly. The French think the wood varnish ad is silly. Sex isn't funny to them.
Ah, but to the British, sex is a riot. Despite the fact that the entire nation has been enjoying casual sex since the swinging '60s, they're still embarrassed about it. They use language to make sex unsexy. It's camouflaged in schoolboy humor. British culture, as far as sex is concerned, seems to have got stuck like an immature adolescent giggling at words like shag, knob and bonk. And don't even ask what fanny means to an Englishman. This embarrassment, dating back to the Victorian era, is something the British may have successfully exported to most of their colonies. As one of our Indian colleagues said, "God, you Brits gave us sexual hangups -- we're still trying to work out whether our traditional heritage is heathen or divine!"
He has a point. A lot of traditional Indian culture is very sexually explicit. To many Western eyes, the Kama Sutra is positively pornographic. To this day, regulators in the U.K. still worry about 'sexploitation' in advertising. They just don't know what we should or shouldn't say in ads without giving offense to our sensibilities, despite the explicit nature of so many British TV programs. One of the most loved ads in Britain uses this embarrassment to great effect for McDonald's. It features a very English dad, who is thrown into a muddle by his young daughter's persistent questions as to where babies come from. He does everything he can to avoid the subject, and finally makes a frantic offer of lunch at McDonald's. In America, making judgments about fellow Americans is the name of the game. It is the most litigious country in the world and a nation obsessed with political correctness. While they may admit to liking the McDonald's ad privately, publicly the ad was judged to set a bad example. American viewers told us that the right way to explain the facts of life to a child was clearly and without embarrassment. Another commercial on the reel, for breast cancer detection, was also judged to be politically incorrect. It alluded to the inescapable human insight that men like to look at women's breasts. But although men do indeed look at women's breasts, our American viewers judged that it was not right for advertising to be seen to acknowledge such unspeakable behavior. It seems that in the States, you can by an AK-47 in a discount store, but sex in advertising is a very different matter altogether.
There is, of course, one area of the world so liberated, so at ease with all things sexual, that anything goes. None of the ads on our reel was a problem to them. Indeed, a lot of the ads were theirs. It may have something to do with being in comparative darkness for much of the year, but for the Scandinavians, anything goes. They've assimilated sex into the culture to such a degree that they have no hangups, no double standards. And importantly, the Scandinavians aren't the only ones. The Japanese aren't that dissimilar. Japan, like India, has a cultural heritage extremely comfortable with all things related to sex. None of the ads we showed them raised even an eyebrow. The key in Japan is not to lose face, so provided sex is used in an 'honorable' way, anything's fine.
Perhaps this all goes to show that countries, like clients, get the advertising they deserve. And there are clients who recognize the absurdity of these kinds of double standards, who, despite the culture of their country, are happy to confront all the taboos. Such clients do get the advertising they deserve.
Gerard Stamp is chairman/joint European creative director, and Mark Stockdale is executive planning director at Leo Burnett/London. They adapted this article