“Though I’m not sure how, given the visually aggressive nature of what is currently in our environment,” he says. “The more voices there are contesting for recognition, the louder advertisers want to scream.”
So with traffic-stopping 50-foot high billboards of bulging Beckham’s Armani Y-fronts making headlines around the world, what is the future for sexing up your designs without causing offence?
One of the central challenges for designers is how they can create innovative work without caving in to stereotypical notions about sex and sexual imagery, in order to appeal to mainstream audiences.
Is sexing up your designs the easy option, or is it a case of subjugating good (and imaginative) design to better serve a client’s brand, by targeting its defined audience?
Of course, sex isn’t appropriate for every target market, or for every product. Traditionally it has been used to appeal to younger men, although increasingly sexualized portrayals of men and women are being used to appeal to women, too.
However, it’s a safe bet that if you’re designing a campaign for bread, or pushchairs, it’s best to keep things clean.
Does it work for you?
So how should a designer approach sex in design? “Responsibly,” says Berger. “Honestly,” says Heller. Berger says: “As image and messagemakers, designers have control over the metaphors we use. We need to ask ourselves how we want the language of sex in our culture to inform what we are doing.”
He continues: “Take the retro iconography of the pin-up girl. [It was] exploitative in the 1940s, but now it’s used with cool irony. Should we view this as progress?”
At its best, the use of sex in design can promote social change and progress, says Berger. “The classic [Benetton] Colors campaigns addressing AIDS, or the Diesel image of two male sailors kissing, are examples of how sex or sexuality became watershed design moments,” he says.
Used carelessly or through a conscious desire to shock or to push boundaries of taste, though, over-sexed design can be exploitative and risks doing huge damage to a brand, as a 2006 campaign for British childrenswear firm No Added Sugar illustrates.
The brand attracted complaints and national condemnation when it sent out a small run of catalogues featuring children wearing makeup and photographed in suggestive, adult poses.
While the campaign collected just five complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority from the 14,000 brochures sent out, the ASA rulings in February 2007 made the unacceptable nature of the imagery clear.
“In image C the girl was heavily made up, with a serious expression on her face and was kneeling on all fours. We considered that, along with the caption ‘A gentleman should never keep a lady waiting’, the image was likely to be seen as presenting the child in a sexually provocative manner.”
In its defence, No Added Sugar claimed that as a relatively new company, its art director’s vision for a shoot was “to create something stylized and modern, an aspirational catalogue for the brand”.
Perhaps this vision should have extended to his company’s potential customers, who in this case were the parents of young children.
The ASA’s ruling demanded that No Added Sugar run all its adverts past them before publication in the future. However, when targeted at the right audience and pitched at the right level, sexual imagery or innuendo in a design can be a winner, says Berger.
“There are lots of great examples of using sex and sexuality that are not harmful,” says Berger, citing Saatchi & Saatchi’s ad for Club 18-30 as a great example of using sexual humour well.
This suggestive campaign may have collected a handful of complaints, but it won plaudits too. In 2002 Saatchi & Saatchi won the prestigious press advertising Grand Prix award for the Club 18-30 campaign at the Cannes International Advertising Festival – the adland equivalent of an Oscar.
Berger’s favourite example of sex or sexuality in design, though, is Art Chantry’s Cookie CD cover. It features a man’s face, half made up to look like a woman.
“I love it for the way it blurs boundaries of gender,” he says. His favourite campaign, that goes even further than Club 18-30’s naughty wink, is from 2000/2001.
“I think the Sisley campaign using Terry Richardson’s photography was great for its unabashed exposure and glamorization of all variations on deviant sexual behaviour.”
Considered ‘too much’ by many at the time, the images featured rich-looking club kids getting it on with each other. One sexually-charged Heidi look-a-like is seen squeezing milk from the udder of a cow into her mouth.
It’s a glimpse of the sex-lives of knowing young adults, designed to sell jeans. A similar campaign in May this year, for the British Channel 4 TV series Skins, attracted complaints, one of which was upheld by the ASA on the grounds that it showed a group of teenagers post-orgy and was unsuitable as a billboard.
Using sexual imagery or innuendo to sell a look and a lifestyle, is one thing – but what about when it comes to generally non-sexy goods such as coffee?
Lavazza is an Italian coffee company, whose campaign trades on everything but the taste of the coffee.
Launching the 2008 company calendar at the Palace of Versailles last year for example, Lavazza referenced “the imaginary worlds of the French and Chinese imperial courts,” “seductive looks and sumptuous settings,” “sensuality and elegance,” “enchanting muses” and “goddesses”.
This is a more sophisticated world than kids at an orgy. Here, creatives are peddling sensuality rather than overt sexuality. Its message is clear – buy the coffee, and buy into the world of fluttering fans and tight bodices.
The art of seduction
Meanwhile, book cover designer David Pearson chose an oblique, suggestive angle for his cover designs for Penguin’s Great Loves series.
His cover for Sigmund Freud’s Deviant Love is a phallic-looking plant stamen in sensual shades of magenta, while his cover for Anaïs Nin’s Eros Unbound is a cropped view of an orange, with the stalk pointing outwards, suggesting a breast.
Pearson says that he instinctively steers clear of overt imagery when designing. “Suggestion is more intriguing, it activates readers’ interpretations. You can say more when you say less,” he says.
“For books on love, unless you go down the Mills & Boon route, you have to be more suggestive.”
Pearson opted to use fruit and nature rather than human forms almost instinctively: “Fruit has sexual connotations and ambiguity – it suggests the mouth and eating, it’s a very seductive concept... Even if I had used people for that series, I’d have gone down the more closely cropped, abstract route – you could shoot clothing, and not flesh at all, that’s much more figurative and interesting. You could even have furniture – anything curvy and sensual.”
Pearson’s most conventionally ‘sexy’ cover, for a book titled Deluxe, features a female model draped in jewellery; the model is silhouetted, while the jewellery is in gold and silver.
“That cover was a different experience for me. I hired a team of fashion magazine people, and you can see their influence. It did feel exploitative – the minute you find yourself in a studio and someone’s taking their clothes off, you can’t help but feel that you’re exploiting them, like you’re using their body to sell the book. It did deliver the right message for the book, so I suppose it was justified.”