A few weeks ago, in the wake of a controversial Time magazine cover featuring a breastfeeding woman, Adweek asked me to comment on the use and effectiveness of women's breasts in advertising. They didn't use my comments, so I'll reproduce them here.
On May 15th, The New York Times reported that researchers had found the “oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery” -- 37,000-year-old images in a rock shelter in France. What was the subject matter? The female anatomy.
Apparently, advertisers weren’t the first to discover sex.
I think I can say with a relatively high degree of confidence that 37,000 years later, a large majority of men still like to look at women’s breasts. How else do you explain Hugh Hefner’s mansions or Pamela Anderson’s acting career?
Publishers learned a long time ago that women with their shirts off sell their wares. This is why magazines feature cleavage on the cover (and, by the way, why Adweek writes stories about it.)
I’m no psychologist, but it seems a rather tenuous proposition to hold that we like to look at ‘em on the editorial pages but not on the ad pages. So I’m going to take it as a given that ads featuring the female breast attract the male eye.
This fact has lead to a whole genre of unfortunate advertising. We’ve all seen these ads -- top-heavy women standing next to copy machines and earth-moving equipment. Near-naked women eating drippy hamburgers or slurping light beer. Super Bowl spots with that naughty, middle-school sensibility. The entire economy of the state of Nevada seems to rely on this type of advertising.
So the eternal question is: does sex sell? As usual, market research will not get you an answer, just more questions.
It’s always been my opinion that the first job of an ad is to garner attention. If it doesn’t get your attention, it can’t sell you anything. But getting your attention is not the same as making the sale.
I’d like to think an ad that just goes for titillation (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and doesn’t make a point is worthless. I’d like to think that successful advertising requires more than this. I’d like to think that ads with stacked women making inane sexual innuendoes are stupid and wasteful. So, please, don’t ask me to explain the success of GoDaddy.
By the way, every 10-year-old is now 2 clicks away from the most disturbing types of pornography. This seems to bother no one. But when a magazine puts a breast on its cover everyone suddenly goes all sensitive.