With designers seemingly using sex to sell everything from mobile homes to prosthetic limbs, maybe we should put away the porn stars and take a more mature approach.
Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising,” according to literary critic John Lahr. That’s one side of the coin; here’s the other: “Sex! What is that but life, after all? We’re all of us selling sex, because we’re all selling life,” proclaims US ad guru Alvin Chereskin. And while they’re discussing creative output, sex and design is something that is still, sadly, either sniggered about, embraced with all the fumbling lack of skill of young lovers, or ignored.
Yet the use of sex in design is everywhere. You can’t buy a drink, or a chocolate bar, or go on holiday without first having to navigate an array of sexual imagery designed to make you choose one brand of sugar water over another.
And everybody is at it. I’ve seen ads for such things as printers, puzzle books, trainers, hovercraft, rice pudding, over-60s holidays, and incontinence pants where sex has been the hook. You can imagine the design team thinking: “I know, we’ll drape a bikini-clad woman over these padded pee pants, and sit back as sex-obsessed blokes snap up ‘em up in a quest to boost their success with sex. Job done.”
Well, kind of. When you were younger, sex was a mystery. It was an uncharted territory that you’d do anything to explore – heck, if purchasing incontinence pants would have helped, you’d have been first in the queue. Today, with sex and sex appeal being used to sell everything, sexual imagery has achieved something disastrous for designers.
It has entered the mainstream. It’s no-longer edgy or provocative to use a pornstar to sell jeans, or seeing a model in a TV commercial explicitly wrap her lips around a chocolate bar. Sex is the new bland, and explicit images are a standard currency. And as for the latest Tetley Tea ad – pur-lease.
Frankly, it’s getting boring. Not just for me, but for the audience, too. When sexual language, both visually and textually, is used as throwaway signposting for products, the effect is diluted. I’ll buy a car because I want to go somewhere – honest – and not because I’m seeing wave upon wave of models shaking their butts on TV to show off its odd-shaped boot. This boot booty really has got to stop.
So, what’s the answer? According to the latest research, less is more. Introducing seduction and suggestive sexual messages is proving successful for a flagging design libido. Making the audience work to understand and embrace the message produces a better result than simply showing them a pair of tits between the sheets of a magazine.
People are wising up to the fact that overt sex in design is patronising, club-hammer approach that lacks sophistication, and expects the audience to respond in a predictable, bone-headed manner. Instead, a new generation of consumers is passing over porn, laughing at the feeble attempts at titillation that lazy designers are guilty of, and associating the brand with a certain sleaziness that will be hard to shift.
That’s not to say sex shouldn’t be an abandoned bedfellow of design. Sex does sell – and will continue to – but like the real thing, as design and sex matures, it needs to become a more sophisticated, sensual thing.