Sex, bikinis, honesty can fit in the three-minute ad break

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Word that Conar, Brazil's advertising self-regulatory organization, has decreed there should be no more bikini babes in Brazilian beer ads (as part of a ban on eroticism) throws up this question: What role does social honesty play in advertising?

Banning bikini babes from Brazilian beer advertising is as radical as suggesting that Brazilians should wear thongs only on dress-down Fridays or on the beach. In truth, this is like trying to ban the nipple from French advertising, comedic violence from American ads, crass bad taste from Australian ads or self-conscious irony from British ads. It is a cultural anathema.

But it does give rise to an under-explored area of debate in the global industry: Should ads give people what they like, and risk offending some? Should advertising reflect society honestly in addition to persuading us to buy the product?

Clearly, there are some marketers who do not think they have a responsibility to reflect society honestly or we would not have cultural monstrosities like "I'm lovin' it" from McDonald's foisted upon us. When trying not to offend anyone is a key driver of your advertising, the unfortunate result can only be an "I'm lovin' it," a campaign that purports to be all things to everyone and inevitably ends up meaning nothing to anyone.

Is this really better than, say, a little honesty about sex?

Look around us. Should advertising, alone of all media, ignore that the world has a healthy appetite for sex, and for being sold to through sex.

Yes, it should be careful with sex-but only in as much as the industry confuses sex with sexism. (Miller Lite's own brawling bikini-clad babes are a fine example of that.)

Marie Catherine Dupuy, the TBWA France chairman and doyenne of French advertising, talked recently of how far the image of women in advertising had progressed in her 30-year career. Nevertheless, she has never advocated a nipple ban (while questioning why nipples need be used to sell not only soap and moisturizer but cars, electronics, pasta, insurance and gardening gear.)

Do we want our commercial breaks to be Disney-fied, just three minutes of disconnect-surreal politeness, preachy morality and asexuality in a world that can be rude, morally ambiguous and highly-sexed?

Isn't it preferable for advertising to reflect with some honesty the world in which it exists? The reality of alcohol consumption is that it is in large part associated with having a good time, partying and yes, sex-particularly among young people. In this respect, the Copacabana is no different than the Champs Elysee or Chicago.

Surely, the ad industry can reflect this without resorting to the crassness of Miller Lite and the sexist work put out over the years by AmBev, Kaiser and other Brazilian beer marketers? But is Miller's new sex-free campaign actually more honest?

In the Dudley Moore movie "Crazy People," one of the campaigns the inmates of the mental institution came up with was: "Drive a Porsche, Get Laid." Is it really any crazier than "Miller Lite has half the carbs of Bud Light?" Health benefit claims for a Lite beer? It's enough to make one pine for the brawling babes.

Stefano Hatfield is contributing editor to Advertising Age and Creativity

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