Did you know sex sells? Yeah, me neither. The late comedian and social critic Bill Hicks used to say that the advertisement that big business wants to run is simply a photograph of an attractive woman fully naked and the text “Drink Coke” (or any other company’s slogan). Unlike me, he made it sound funny, of course, but the point is that it’s not really a secret that sex is used to sell almost every imaginable kind of product or service. I had a whole semester on this subject in college, where we were even shown the word s-e-x spelled out in an older version of KFC’s Colonel Sanders logo, along with much else.
Among beer advertisements, especially those of the big breweries, sex is a frequent sales tool from the Coors Twins to St. Pauli Girl. A review of older beer ads will quickly reveal that this is not a new phenomenon, either. Many early breweries used attractive women in their advertising. I’m not necessarily opposed to seeing an attractive woman per se, but when it’s used merely to pander to base instincts and outmoded stereotypes then it’s bad for the beer industry, at least in my opinion. Most of the worst examples of this — Miller’s mud wrestling “cat fight” ad was a particularly bad one — essentially take the position that their target audience is all but exclusively male or certainly male enough that they can safely alienate half the total population. And not just any male, but a certain kind of unenlightened male, the ones for whom Jackass, Beavis and Butthead, Dumb and Dumber, and Beerfest are all high art. Does that make me elitist? Maybe, but I’d rather that than see beer’s image continue to be so unceasingly tarnished.
Not surprisingly, that is outmoded thinking, because the demographics of beer are changing and beer drinking among women is on the rise. Some recent studies show that of the total beer consumed in America, women drank 25% of it. And while it may be no surprise that the age group with the most women beer drinkers is 21-30, the number of women drinking beer who are over age 50 is growing significantly.
But I wouldn’t argue that sexual imagery should never be used in advertising (or art or anywhere else). I don’t think that’s the right solution and frankly I don’t think it possible. Despite fundamentalist attempts globally to suppress sexual awareness and expression, it is a potent part of human nature. Without the sexual urge, we might never procreate and continue as a species so it certainly fills a very vital role in the life cycle.
I would suggest, however, that common sense and a sense of perspective and context might be employed in how sexual images are used, not least of which because we’ll never evolve if advertising continues to keep us wallowing (and literally wrestling) in the mud of our basest primal instincts. The people whose products are being advertised in these ways should have a bit more respect for themselves and their product. Why the big beer companies want to associate themselves with mud wrestling, talking frogs, man law, flatulent horses, etc. is beyond me because it does nothing to elevate the image of their product. Interestingly, when Miller tried to change that carefully created image by using the tagline “Beer: Grown Up,” hardly anyone was buying it. USA Today polls showed a majority of people didn’t like the ads and didn’t think they were effective. Despite Terry Haley, the brand manager for Miller Genuine Draft, saying “[w]e believe in what we’re doing, [w]e’re tapping into a true social trend, and we’re going to stay the course,” Miller quickly dropped the ads, and switched ad agencies, who presumably will return to the puerile.
But the other side of this debate is one of easy offense and our willingness to censor should even only a sole complaint be lodged. Advertisers, advertising and the media generally beat a very hasty retreat when faced with criticism, which is a powerful wedge for organizations and individuals with agendas and an axe to grind. (The media, of course, is paid for by advertising — you may think that you are TV, the magazine and the newspaper’s customer but you are not. Their customer is the advertiser.) For years, organizations with a small, minority membership have caused havoc for the rest of us when they cried offense at one imagined slight after the other. The media landscape for a time was (and probably still is) rife with stories of letter writing campaigns from citizen’s groups in which television shows (and other media) were deemed by these yahoos to be too provocative, too sexy, used too much bad language, showed different morals then their own, and on and on. Basically, much like neo-prohibitionist groups, some people cannot rest until the world is remade in their own image, indeed they cannot tolerate any difference of opinion or alternative (to their own) lifestyle being on display, especially if their children might furtively glance longingly at such imagined hedonism. Worse still, entire entertainment programs have been altered, changed or canceled, books have been banned, and songs have been censored all on the basis of a few complaints or even a single complaint. That 299,999,999 people in the U.S. do not complain seems to carry no weight, or at least far less weight than the single whiner who does. This is literally the very opposite of a democracy, in which the desires of the many are circumvented and denied by a tiny handful of individuals, or in some cases a single person.
This is, of course, true of advertising as well. The hue and cry against much advertising is loud and shrill and seems never to cease. And while I may not disagree with all of it — I’m no fan of a lot of advertising — I find truly reprehensible the impulse to inflict one’s beliefs on the rest of society, as if any person could be certain of the one, true moral compass and way to live one’s life. That anyone pays attention to these nutjobs is a sad commentary indeed on the way our world is heading, but that’s a debate for another day and another forum.
What prompted all of what preceded, is an item reported yesterday by the BBC News in an article titled ‘Provocative’ beer ad criticized. According to the report, a complaint was filed with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, an organization that is paid for by the advertising industry and which acts essentially as an ombudsman. That means that people offended by advertising may file complaints and have their cases adjudicated by the ASA. In this instance, a print ad for Bishop’s Finger, a popular beer brewed by the Shepherd Neame Brewery of Kent, England had a complaint filed against it. The ad that prompted the complaint has been removed from Bishop’s Finger’s website, but here is a similar one:
In the offending one, which apparently ran in the magazine Time Out, the woman was seated on a bale of hay and the text read, “I love a good session on the Bishops Finger.” And here are all seven print ads, after the offending one was quickly removed. The name “Bishop’s Finger” has it’s origin in the “ancient finger-shaped signposts that showed the Pilgrims the way to Canterbury Cathedral” that are unique to the Kent area of southeastern England.
It is overtly sexual? Sure. Is it offensive? Not to me, I find it mildly amusing. It does play on the origin of the beer’s name and hearkens back to Chaucer’s time. It uses a pretty obvious double entendre, of course, but it is in context. According to the BBC article, Bishop’s Finger is known for running humorous ads. At least it’s not a scantily clad bikini gal holding a beer for no discernible reason other than to titillate.
The ASA examined the ad for four breaches of the UK’s advertising guidelines and only found that they had violated one, and ruled as follows:
We considered that the text “I love a good session on the Bishops Finger” played on the connotations of drinking and sexual activity. We considered that the woman’s pose was suggestive and concluded that, in combination with the headline text, it was likely to be seen as linking alcohol with seduction and sexual activity.
On this point, the ad breached CAP Code clause 56.9 (Alcoholic drinks).
Here’s 56.9 in its entirety:
Marketing communications must neither link alcohol with seduction, sexual activity or sexual success nor imply that alcohol can enhance attractiveness, masculinity or femininity.
Based on their ruling, the the “Advertising Standards Agency told the beer maker in future to adopt an approach that did not link alcohol with sexual activity.” Okay, I’m sure they’ll get right on that. And given that alcohol and sexual activity are, in fact, linked insofar as sexual activity can be linked with practically anything, I’m not even sure how you could possibly enforce such a perniciously vague standard. Right or wrong, alcohol has been called a “social lubricant” for centuries. That’s one of its roles in society, to pretend otherwise seems dishonest.
But here’s the thing, and perhaps the point of all this — finally — only ONE person in all of England complained about this ad. Only One. Out of a population of more than 60 million people, only ONE person was offended enough to complain. That one person being offended by the ad prompted a full-scale investigation involving who knows how many people, a news article in the BBC, and a major brewer to withdraw an ad from the market. Does that seem reasonable? It sure doesn’t seem so to me. Like many issues of censorship, the person who lodged this complaint could have asked a few friends before starting this ball rolling. Perhaps some friend’s support or non-support might have changed or strengthened their resolve. But even if a 100 people had complained, a hundredfold increase, I would still be skeptical that justice had been served. Perspective has to play in role in looking at issues of censorship and people being offended. I’m sorry this person felt as badly as she (or possibly he, I suppose) claims to have, but that doesn’t mean the whole of England should have to sit up and take notice. Is there anything published in the world today that you couldn’t argue might be offensive to somebody? It’s one thing to be sensitive to the views of others, but quite another to insist the world be inoffensive to all. Every time we pander to such an extreme minority view, however well-intentioned, we fan the flames of intolerance and make it harder for all of us to co-exist. Why can’t we all just have a beer and get along?